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Author: Mercurio Silver

Bioshock 2 – The Verdict

Bioshock 2 – The Verdict

It’s very hard to write this review. I adored the original Bioshock for its ability to deconstruct some of the major issues with videogames, the mindless subservience to the designer’s whims. It was so surprising and powerful that what short comings the game had, and there was a fair few, were immediately overlooked. With its parent casting such a tall shadow, can Bioshock 2 possibly pull another surprise out of the bag?

In truth, no, it can’t.

Some time has passed since Jack’s murderous rampage across Rapture, although not that you’d really notice that from looking. Rapture is instantly recognisable as the same cesspool of human detritus that it was before, from the deformed inhabitants to the rusted and dilapidated city itself. Following the first game, a power vacuum has installed Sophia Lamb, a sort of Anti-Ryan, as the dominant figurehead in what remains of this underwater utopia, and she doesn’t much care for you.

As the pre-release gubbins has no doubt made you aware, Bioshock 2 places you in the armoured boots of one of the very first Big Daddies, Subject Delta. In a fitting introduction to the character, the game begins with your zealously protecting your adorable charge, a Little Sister, by brutally slaughtering a few splicers. It’s that power you remember from the first game, the terrifying Big Daddy with the power to bat you across the room with a flick of the wrist and the speed to catch you before you hit the ground. You’re a badass with a drill for an arm, and this is just the opening cutscene. Then Dr Lamb rocks on up with the Big Daddy controlling Plasmid from Bioshock 1 and makes you shoot yourself in the face.

My first thought when this happened was along the lines of ‘Why couldn’t we do that in the first game?’, closely followed by a moment of confusion as the game begins proper with you waking up. I knew Big Daddies were tough, but man! It is at this point where the game gives you control and the charming veneer begins to slip.

For a game that places great emphasis on you playing a Big Daddy, it never really manages to pull off the feeling that you are one of these behemoths. Even towards the end, weapons done up to the nines with shiny baubles that make you sneeze lightning, you’re still too fragile. The real Big Daddies have the same amount of health as a mountain, requiring you to slowly chip away at them while trying to maintain your distance. There are times you can stumble across them crushing a group of splicers easily. You, however, can be felled by a handful of lucky shots.

In the first game this was forgiveable. Jack was an outsider, unspliced and fresh faced, and was therefore allowed to be squishy and weak. Delta is a genetically modified giant welded into a metal suit, and yet this has no impact on the game at all. When you jump you may hear the clang of metal on ground as you land, but for all intents and purposes you may as well be wearing a flannel shirt for all the good it does you as armour.

This is not for want of trying, of course. The weapons you wield are suitably Big Daddyish, from the drill arm and the rivet gun to the mini-gun and the hilarious speargun. But there is a disconnection between them and you that doesn’t sit right. The rivet gun is the main offender in this regard, the in-game model being gargantuan when sat on the floor and disturbingly tiny when held in hand. The drill doesn’t fare much better. Once upgraded it does become astoundingly hilarious, grinding a hole through various foes as they writhe in agony, but all the while an irritating fuel gauge saps some of the joy out of it.

There are only so many issues that can be explained away by the polyfiller that is the word ‘prototype’. Yes, Delta is a prototype Big Daddy, but putting constraints on a player character that similar NPCs don’t have is just annoying. The other Big Daddies could survive a direct hit from a nuclear bomb, leave their drill running for days and defeat an army, so why can’t you?

That’s not to say the game hasn’t made some improvements. As a game, the mechanics are now quite a bit tighter, especially when it comes to hacking. The previous game presented you with a water rerouteing minigame, the splicers around you politely waiting for you to finish tinkering with your turret before they returned to braining you. Bioshock 2 has done away with this, replacing it with a much shorter minigame that doesn’t pause the action. This means that combat hacking is much more dangerous to do, leading you to having to decide whether taking that turret is really worth it.

Or it would, if it weren’t for the invention of hacking darts that allow you to tap into a system from a distance, even ignoring the minigame altogether if you use the rarer variety.

This is how Bioshock 2 seems to work, for every innovation it makes (like a free item from a vending machine for a particularly difficult hack) it detracts from it with something daft (such as the painfully linear nature of the game). This is made all the more painful because so many of the problems are things that the original game dealt with quite well and have merely been reintroduced in the sequel.

But nothing in the game is more frustrating than the Big Sisters.

The ADAM gathering missions with the Little Sisters tend to be rather fun, give or take the odd bit of computer cheating by spawning splicers in dead end corridors, and when it comes to shoving the little tyke into a vent or sucking our her brain slug you can’t help but feel you’ve bonded with her. Every time you harvest or heal one, however, there is a chance that you will earn the ire of a Big Sister.

A deathly shriek will sound, the screen will blur, and ‘Warning, a Big Sister is approaching!’ will flash on the screen. You have scarce seconds to prepare your defences, ready your weapons, and then in she strolls, lithe and athletic in her raggedy uniform. In she strolls to kick your arse.

The Big Sister, as well as being a bullet sponge and demonic gymnast, has some serious Plasmid action going on. They are everything the Big Daddy isn’t: quick, athletic, psychic and unashamedly hostile. This is not a problem in and of itself, everything else in Rapture is out to kill you after all, but the sheer frustration caused by one battle with a Big Sister is unbearable. As they leap, stab and burn their way around the room, you’ll notice that even a top level plasmid and firearm will do little against them, and it all seems so arbitrary.

If you recall, the original idea all those years ago was that Bioshock 2 would focus on a number of disappearances from the mainland, all orchestrated by one spooky Big Sister. This same Big Sister would stalk you throughout the game, an ever-present enemy that could strike at any time. In the final game, the Big Sister’s are random encounter bosses rather than characters, dropping by to annoy you and ultimately die after a painful battle of attrition. The feeling of trepidation just isn’t there, replaced with the knowledge that the Big Sister’s shrill howl signals five or ten minutes of abject vexation.

And this is all so ultimately painful because Bioshock 2 could have been as great as its predecessor.

I like the characters for the most part. Lamb is a poor replacement for Ryan, but he is a tough character to beat. Your new radio operator is entertaining too, and there’s a particular character you meet later in the game who delivers some fantastic lines. And while the story is no-one near as coherent or self-aware as the original’s, it is well maintained by the return of audio logs, continuing to flesh out the Bioshock universe even in a tangential manner.

Special mention goes to a certain section of the endgame, and you’ll know it when you get there, which is so charming and beautiful that it seems so out of place. You get a glimpse of what everyone wanted Rapture to be, which serves to not only heighten the feeling of sadness at its current state, but also the pity felt for its inhabitants. You get a window into their madness, and suddenly it all makes sense.

And this is why Bioshock 2 is so disappointing. Throughout the experience it feels as though it’s trying to emulate its father rather than create its own impression. For every problem it fixes it creates a new one elsewhere, and it’s lacking that one identifiable moment where it all comes together, that one big reveal. It is and can be a fun game, but it never really does what it sets out to do. You never really feel like a Big Daddy, the Big Sisters are never really a source of trepidation, the story doesn’t quite feel right. Although, that said, the one thing it does very well is make you care about the Little Sisters you adopt, which is something in its favour. A little scamp giggling ‘X his eyes, daddy!’ as you immolate a wayward Splicer does wonders for the father/daughter bond.

I know it sounds like I’ve been railing on the game, but I have to make it clear that it’s not a bad game. Any other game from any other series would probably be getting praised at this point, but Bioshock 2 feels like a step back from its predecessor in a way. It does many things right, but not enough. If you liked the first Bioshock you will get some enjoyment out of this game, but don’t go looking for anything as awe inspiring as the first time around. It just doesn’t quite manage it.

Good but overshadowed by its big daddy
Filling the (Dark) Void – Episode 2 – The Forest

Filling the (Dark) Void – Episode 2 – The Forest

At this point the rules have largely gone out the window.  If I want to make this good, I’m going to need the ability to ignore some of the little points, so I am.  It’s still mostly true to the game, certainly recognisable, but certain embellishments will have to be made.  The following takes place during Chapter 1 Episode 2: The Crash Site.

Somehow, we survived the crash. Ava woke me up with her soothing screeching, and the world slowly flopped into focus. For a moment I saw the figure of a man clawing at what remained of the nose of the plane, but he was gone by the time my eyes focused, a stifled scream being the only thing that proved to me that he hadn’t been a trick of the light.

My head settled and, as if to punish me for deigning to regain some composure, the plane shifted violently. It was at that moment, as the wreckage plummeted another twenty feet, that I noticed we had been strung up in the foliage of a tree. Then the wreckage collided with the ground, my head collided with the instrument panel in front of me, and everything went fuzzy for a little while.

Ava, being the same spry devil she always had been, managed to avoid both potential concussions and was waiting patiently for me to wake up. Apparently British women are unwilling to kick open mangled steel doors when there’s a half conscious American around. Still, I persevered and opened the door with only marginal noise-induced head trauma, something not exactly improved by the environment outside.

The island, or whatever the place was, didn’t look right. It was beautiful and green, bathed in sunlight and had a tropical rainforest sort of a vibe to it, but it was all wrong. It shouldn’t have been there, not the trees or the sun or even the island itself. It stood against every map I had ever seen, and even my grade-school understanding of geography. I should also mention that bright sunlight does not mesh well with a crippling headache, but being a man I chose to conceal this fact from Ava. Not that she seemed too bothered by the whole ordeal in general.

The view was spoiled a little, however, by the corpse a few feet from the door.

I knelt down and looked at the man. Logically, this would have been the man I thought I saw on the nose as I first came too, but he injuries didn’t seem to fit. I’m no doctor, but that sort of a fall would break bones, not leave huge tears in the flesh. Oddly, there was little blood, despite the severity of his wounds, almost as if he had been drained. I can’t be too certain of this, you understand, as I’m not really trained to stare at corpses. Looking at him long enough to determine if he was dead is about as far as I was willing to go.

Given his terminal condition, and our situation, we did the only intelligent thing and wandered into the forest for some clues as to where we were. Ava claimed she had spotted a village during our crash, although how she had managed to see anything during the stomach-churning spin is something I probably should have asked. The woman had a remarkably good internal compass, although I suppose that comes naturally if you’re born in an imperial power, lots of countries to get lost in after all.

The forest was hot but not as humid as I had expected. The paths between the trees, somewhat well worn and thankfully shaded, were wide enough to avoid that terrible feeling of oppression you can get from nature. If you’re in a suitably isolated place, alone, it can be hard not to feel as though the trees are sneaking up on you, closing in. It’s a foolish fear, and not one I needed at the time, especially as something else was closing in.

There was something in the forest somewhere making a weird sound. It was like a rusty bell being played through a ancient horn, a metallic growl that made the ground shake and myself wince. There was no way of accurately telling how close it was, but we didn’t want to hang around to try and work that out, so we ran.

We ran in what Ava assured me was the direction of the village, deeper into the forest. The shade was more than welcome now but the sun never seemed to be too far away, peeking between the leaves. Our panicked flight caused us to trip and stumble a few times, once almost fatally as we crossed an imposing ravine via a fallen tree, but we had no desire to see the source of that noise. Ultimately we reached a small drop, a point of no return, and stumbled down it.

On reflection, it was the perfect place to set a trap. Had my wits been a little less scrambled I might even have noticed that. As I didn’t notice, we were greeted by the business end of the most ludicrous assault rifle I have ever seen, slowly emerging from the vines at the base of a nearby tree. The man behind the weapon was dressed similarly to the corpse at the crash site, although my cursory glance of said corpse meant that I hadn’t really noticed what he was wearing at the time. Tight fatigues and a strange sort of gas mask. He looked military, perhaps special forces, but I didn’t know of any initiatives that he would have slotted into. He looked us over for a moment, lowered his weapon and ordered us to take cover.

I think his intention was to ensure the area was clear, whether to shoot us or interrogate us or merely introduce himself I cannot say. His sweep ended abruptly when a creature dropped from the canopy above, snapped his neck as one would a cocktail stick, and disappeared back into the brush. The light glinted off of the creature as it vanished, and I realised that it was no animal but a metal man.

My mind shot into overdrive. We’d crashed into some sort of secret war between the West and the Fascists, it was the only explanation. Everyone knew all-out war was brewing, and you’d have to be foolish to think that the intelligence agencies weren’t already taking shots at one another. I’d been briefed on some of the fascist super-weapons before I was let go, mostly fanciful occult nonsense that would never get off the ground, but nothing like this. I couldn’t tell if the metal man was merely a well-armoured soldier or some sort of automaton, but the agile nature of his decent from the canopy did point towards the latter. Had we managed to blunder into a black op, government soldiers sent to secretly undermine this new fascist super-soldier? It seemed plausible at the time.

Either way, getting to the village was our only course of action. We didn’t know where we were and we had no supplies so any form of civilisation was a blessing really. The soldier had been well armed, so Ava and I grabbed a ludicrous rifle each and continued our trek. We could hear the automaton moving around in the trees, sometimes even catching a glimpse of the sun bouncing off his metallic body, but he left us alone for the most part.

Until he dropped a boulder on us.

I’ll elaborate on that. The path led us through a small rock tunnel which he collapsed on us halfway through. We were separated but again unscathed, and by this point I was beginning to think that the luckiest and unluckiest days of my life had managed to coincide. All sorts of life-threatening events seemed to have been squashed into this one day, and yet I was surviving them all.

We continued on our separate paths to the village, the automaton’s shrill metallic laughter following me as he observed my movements. The forest opened out into a series of ruins at one point, vast stone structures that looked faintly familiar, crumbling into dust as the centuries ticked by. Navigating them made the journey considerably longer, and the odd bullet hole and weird scorching kept me constantly on edge. I moved steadily but never too swiftly, not wanting to give the automaton chance to get the drop on me.

Eventually I reached the entry to the village, a giant stone door in the shape of a leering beast. It was vaguely draconic, long sharp teeth and evil eyes glaring down at the rather elaborate entry way. The entire journey up the steps to the door seemed to be designed to draw maximum attention to the already conspicuous door, and it worked like a charm.

I reached the door and pushed it open, although quite how I managed it considering its size and apparent weight I cannot be sure. Perhaps it had well oiled hinges, or some form of counterweight. Then the shrill laughter struck again, and the automaton landed on my back.

It clawed at my back and neck, tearing at the skin. I tried to throw it off, or slam it into a nearby rock or the ground, but the damn thing moved so fast I wound up only hurting myself. It might even be fair to say that I did more damage to myself than it did, winding myself in a mistimed attempt to get the damned thing off me, ending up on the floor with it staring into my eyes.

It definitely wasn’t a man. At this range I could see that there was no room for a man inside such a form, so thin were the appendages and joints, the neck especially. One electric eye crackled in its head, arcing off the socket in a weirdly hypnotic sort of fashion. It chuckled at me directly from the throat, lacking a mouth, and its hands closed on my neck.

Then a gunshot, and the grip loosened. The automaton slumped onto my chest for a moment, before being dragged free a little too roughly, the slack fingers still grazing my skin a little. Ava flung the body onto the ground and helped me up, a traditional British one-liner accompanying the act. I had a cocky reply all prepared, you don’t get far in the armed forces nowadays without knowing how to deal with the wit of an allied nation, but we were both stopped short when we noticed the village.

It had been well hidden behind the stone door but now, in full view, sat the single biggest ziggurat I have ever seen, and into its very walls was built the village.

Filling a (Dark) Void – Episode 1 – Introduction

Filling a (Dark) Void – Episode 1 – Introduction

And we begin with the game’s introduction.  The opening tutorial doesn’t count, that’s just a tutorial, so we start at the moment we meet William Grey, protagonist and hero.  You have no idea how pleased I was that his name wasn’t a variation of “John Jackson”.  This fills the spot of the opening scene, up to the impact onto the island, wherein the game’s version kicks back in.  It’s written in the first person, told by Will Grey.

A word to the wise, if you’re planning on starting a freight haulage company, base it in Nassau. It’s beautiful, warm and there’s not much in the way of local law enforcement to double check every damn thing you’re contracted to carry. Hey, there’s a reason the pirates loved it all those years ago.

It’s also a good place to go if you just want to get away from the world, which God knows I did back when I was there just before the war. I’d had a bad couple of years, culminating in getting drummed out the Air Force. I won’t go into details, but considering the fact that everyone knew a war was brewing with the fascists, and that a fresh set of grunts was probably going to be very useful soon, it should suffice to say that it wasn’t a simple matter.

When you’ve been a pilot, the only thing you know how to do is fly. You could have been to an Ivy League school, born with a silver spoon in each orifice, but once they let you fly nothing else matters. When they take that away from you, or you make them take it away from you, you can’t help but find a way back, even freight haulage.

Don’t get me wrong, I like hauling crates around the world, but it’s stressful. Money is always tight, and breaking even is the best you can hope for. There’s always someone cheaper, with a shinier plane and blonde hair, ready to steal your customers, and even the most understanding bank will only extend credit so far. I suppose that is how it all began really.

It’s not good business to limit what you can and can’t carry, but I’ve always been wary of government contracts. From time to time I’d get approached by suspicious men in trench coats, or people in finely pressed suits that are precisely the wrong things to wear in the Nassau weather, and they’d always offer me a handsome sum of money to ferry a disproportionately small package for them. I always declined, but there’s only so long you can turn away paying customers before the wolves start knocking at your door.

The package was big this time, which was actually relaxing in a weird way, although the assertion that a special courier was required to oversee the whole thing seemed unusual. If they wanted whatever it was guarded then why didn’t they have the military ship it? The government never cease to confound, they even took out the contract under the guise of an obvious front company. No-one would name their company “Smith & Smith Exports”.

They delivered the package about an hour before the courier arrived, a perhaps to allow time to load it onto the plane where it would be safe from the fallout. Clearly, the government doesn’t understand the work ethic of the self-employed pilot. I had only just finished wheeling the crate from the gates to the plane when a black sedan pulled up behind me. It was polished to a shine, not a hint of rust, and the wheels crunched across the gravel in a mocking tone, as though no other vehicle matched up to this one car. It pulled to a stop and she got out.

Most men have ghosts from the past, but very few have them thrust upon them out of the blue with no conceivable means of escape.

She feigned ignorance, but Eva was never one to go into a situation blind. At the time I was too stunned to realise this, but in hindsight it should have been the first sign that something was wrong. She was as beautiful as I remembered her being from all those years ago, with that British twang adding a touch of the exotic to her. If a woman comes from far away it’s rather hard to resist her.

But that had been a long time ago, and now she was cold. Back then she had been vibrant and exciting, but I had hurt her and that warranted little more than a snide remark and an icy glance. She never was big on forgiveness, but I would have thought a couple of years might have at least taken some of the sting out of it.

We exchanged few words, her momentary display of surprise allowing the following exchange:

‘Will?’

‘Eva?’

And that’s about all. I loaded the plane as quickly as possible, ignoring the telling looks from my friend and navigator (whose name I am leaving out of this record as a means of respect). I’m not sure where she went, but until we were ready to fly she was noticeably absent. Made things easier for me, I suppose.

We set off as soon as the plane was loaded, even thought it was getting dark and the weather was less than ideal. I could have postponed the flight, it was well within my rights as a pilot to do so, but the thought of a whole night of judgement from the ex was scarier than the prospect of flying into a storm, and harder to deal with. Besides, it was a simple trip, and a proper storm was exceedingly unlikely. I’d drop the crate (and the girl) off quickly and be back in Nassau with enough cash to pay off my debtors and have enough spare for a colourful drink.

It took karma about an hour to catch up with my hubris. The sun had finished setting by this point and, shock of shocks, I had flown right into a storm. Ordinarily I could have flown around it, or even turned back, but a combination of British Death Glares and disputed airspace meant that the only option was to plough straight through, into the Bermuda Triangle. In a thunder storm. At night.

I wasn’t a superstitious man at the time. The Bermuda Triangle’s mysterious powers didn’t seem particularly plausible at the time. Hell, the only evidence that anyone really bothered to use was the strange disappearance of the USS Cyclops, and with that sort of name I had expected it to have smashed into a rock or something. You don’t expect the captain of such a ship to have much in the way of depth perception. The other disappearances were just as easily attributed to human error as some paranormal phenomenon, especially when it came to the various aircraft that had vanished.

The storm went bad quickly, visibility becoming a serious issue. I was using the frequent lightning strikes to scout ahead, although the one advantage of flying into such a storm is that most pilots are intelligent enough to make a detour, leaving you a clear path. So it came as a shock when something sped past the cockpit at a fantastic speed.

It moved so fast that I barely caught more than a glimpse. It didn’t look like any aircraft I had ever seen before, and I didn’t spot anything I could identify as an engine. A black disc, somehow in flight. For a moment I assumed it to be a trick of the light, the lightning dazzling me and causing me to misidentify a stray reflection on the windscreen, but Eva shattered that illusion.

She squealed and turned to me for an answer, but before I could give one the engines gave an almighty stutter. Perhaps they’d been clogged by rainwater, or perhaps my constant failure to get the damn thing serviced had finally caught up with me, but for whatever reason, the engines had died. I tried in vain to restart them when the lightning struck again and out of the darkness loomed a spire of rock.

Evasive manoeuvres were futile at this point, but I tried anyway. I swung the plane to the left as best I could, gambling on the strength of the wind to give enough of a push to save our lives. It wasn’t enough. The turn was too sharp and into too much wind, the tail section swung round and smashed into the spire, shearing it off completely. The cargo and my friend disappeared into the darkness, along with two thirds of my aircraft, and what remained began to spin uncontrollably.

We pin-wheeled through the air for what felt like an eternity, the thick darkness being punctuated by thunder. I tried to counter the spin, but the lack of a tail section made the entire thing little more than a vain attempt at survival, having to do something because you feel you should be rather than actually having anything to do. It’s automatic, the human mind can’t accept a sudden and imminent death, it has to fight.

There was a final crack of thunder, and through the lightning and the nauseating spin I saw what looked to be an island directly ahead. We were going to hit it, and at this speed I wasn’t sure we could survive the impact.

Adopt, Adapt and Improve – Dark Void

Adopt, Adapt and Improve – Dark Void

I’ve never really gotten to grips with writing science fiction. I’ve experimented with pretty much every genre, from steam punk to body horror, and the only one that causes me headaches happens to be sci-fi, the one genre that defined my youth. Perhaps it is because of this that I can’t help but fall into the conventions so prevalent in the media: hyperspace drives, technobabble, sexy triple-breasted alien chicks, the whole shebang.

But there is something that irritates me more than genre conventions and hideous stereotypes. You can still tell a good story while fighting the conventions, it’s harder but you can do it, and seeing examples of people failing to try manages to raise my ire more than any generic construction.

This is my issue with Dark Void.

I bought Dark Void to tide myself over until I could come to terms with wanting Mass Effect 2, a game I had tried to dislike purely because its prequel’s terrible combat mechanics had left a sour taste. All the pre-release goodies for Dark Void had detailed this sci-fi extravaganza: sucked into the heart of the Bermuda Triangle during a routine passenger flight, American Hero is introduced to advanced technology and aliens in equal measure, culminating in bloody jetpacks and the scientific undermining of ancient religion. This makes a change from space marines punching the snot out of multi-muscled behemoths, I’m in.

Unfortunately, the developers themselves seem to have decided that plot and story are unnecessary in this sort of game, that prolonged fire fights and drunken jetpack controls will be enough to drag you through the game. They also seem to think that this is worth the two years of average hype and the paycheck for one mister Nolan North. It’s not, and the worst thing is that it so easily could have been.

The actual mechanics are a bit wonky, but they’re passable. It’s a repetitive game hidden behind the notions of vertical cover, jetpacks, and enemies that take a Nottingham night’s worth of bullets to put down. The thing is, almost every action game is repetitive, they just conceal it well behind explosions and cutscenes. Good cutscenes. Ones that connect the game together in a meaningful and coherent manner, not haphazardly ushering you from level to level with nary an explanation.

I propose a way to remedy this. I’ll fill in the gaps for you.

Starting this Wednesday, I intend to do what the developers didn’t, and try to fashion a cohesive and hopefully compelling narrative out of Dark Void. There will be rules to this of course, which I’ll explain in a moment, but the basic idea is to take what’s already there and expand it carefully, spinning out the cutscenes and the back story to such a level that you should never think “what the hell?”.

In order to do this, there will be a few rules. Firstly, I will not retell what’s is actually there; I’ll write around them so as to actually provide context for what happens on-screen. I may make an exception for the intro and the conclusion, but only if I feel I need to, everything else will fit around the game itself. Secondly, I’ll try to do it both competently and concisely; it’s very easy to wax lyrical for three thousand words, but no-one is going to read that much on a gaming website about an average/mediocre game. Finally, this will be a weekly thing, every Wednesday (God permitting). Hopefully, you’ll enjoy it and it might just help to make the game a bit more fun too, but I make no apologies for any mistakes or continuity errors that may occur. I will do my very best to minimise them, even going so far as to play the actual game a second time, but if one slips through, well, you have been warned.

I’ll do it one game chapter per week, that should keep the word count down and come with the added bonus of allowing the thing to finish around the time the game will be visible in bargain bins across the world, so those of you without the (mis)fortune of already having played it will be able to pick it up, story bible in hand.

So, shall we see if this is worth the effort?

Gratuitous Space Battles – The Verdict

Gratuitous Space Battles – The Verdict

I’ve never liked the word ‘gratuitous’. It’s one of those words that is impossible to say in anything other than a Mary Whitehouse tone. It’s one of the elite cadre of words that has a reputation, and ‘gratuitous’ has a reputation for bad.

Yet here it is, in full, capitalised glory, amongst the title of a new indie game about things exploding in space. Even better, it flies in the face of gratuitous’s reputation. Gratuitous Space Battles is not only good, it’s rather charming with it.

For those not in the know Gratuitous Space Battles (hereafter GSB, acronym fans) is the brainchild of noted indie darling Cliff Harris, responsible for Democracy and Kudos. The main focus of the game is to take all your favourite parts of science fiction films (the exploding space ships) and cram it all into a game worth £16. It’s an interesting move in this regard, as though he’s taken Galactic Civilisation or Imperium Galactica, cut out all the bits with numbers, and dropped what’s left into a tidy little package.

The game part of GSB comes from designing your own armada of shiny death machines and arranging them prior to open conflict. In fact, true to its name, this pre-battle set up is the only time you have any input into what your ships will do. You can give your vessels standing orders, order them to support one another or defend a specific ship for instance, but once you click go that’s your job done. As you might expect from such a system, there will be moments where you will want to get on the phone and order a ship to shoot at the battleship right under his nose, but those moments are never too stressful thanks, in no small part, to the battles themselves.

I want you to stop for a minute and picture your favourite sci-fi film/programme, one with spaceships please otherwise this won’t work. Got it? Right. What you are thinking of there is almost exactly what you get in GSB. I say almost because I’m pretty sure you’ll be thinking of high-speed, stomach churning acrobatics accompanying your lasers, and GSB doesn’t do that. What it does do, however, is some rather delightful light shows. Lasers bounce of shields as capital ships crawl into range of one another, fighters explode as a wry shot from a cruiser catches the pilot off-guard, and torpedoes are shot out of the sky by point-defence lasers with seconds to spare. It’s simply beautiful.

It’s also rather hard at times. Get out of the tutorial missions and the game immediately expects you to understand how things work. Build your own ships, spend your cash and go out there and win. If you’re anything like me, you’ll spend a little while getting blown into captivating stardust before you finally start cobbling together a ragtag fleet of competent spacers. It is in defeat where the game shows yet more clever design however.

Losing, even in a game that makes it look good, will eventually wear out its welcome, and in games where battles can take a considerable amount of time there may come a point where it is clear to you that victory is impossible. Those irritating minutes where knowing that there is nothing you can do to reverse this trend can sap all the fun out of a game. GSB can detect when a battle has become unwinnable for one side, and presents you with a handy box to skip to the end. It should also be said that this box will pop up when you’re winning too, but at that point you will want to see your enemies explode into a twisted hulk of debris. While this feature itself is not new (the Total War games have something similar) it seems more intelligent than its predecessors, forcing you to play less of a losing game and get back to the drawing board much faster.

There is a very easy way to sum up this game: if you like Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, or any other show with ‘star’ hidden in its title somewhere, you are going to love Gratuitous Space Battles. It’s both simple and complicated in equal measure, and at the correct moments, allowing you to see the game for what it is: a chance to build your own little space opera. Design, refine and conquer, and do so with some damn fine pyrotechnics.

Set faces to stunned, gentlemen
No, Sir, Your Virtual World Is Nothing But A Virtual Soundstage

No, Sir, Your Virtual World Is Nothing But A Virtual Soundstage

That's Hello Kitty Online by the way

Games are doing my head in. Specifically MMOs.

When MMOs started to really hit it big, to crawl out of the shackles of “cult status” and start to rake in the big bucks, I was one of those kids that every market loves. I was young, middle class and with parents affluent enough to loan me the dosh to buy into anything that the marketing gurus persuaded me that I wanted. For MMOs, that was Anarchy Online, followed by Star Wars Galaxies and Planetside, then World of Warcraft. I’m now sick of these games, and I want to tell you why.

It’s nothing to do with the individual mechanics of each and every MMO, even the ones that are poor and translate into each successful game. No, my problem lies in the design philosophies of the games. The main tenet of their design is not playability but profit and, while this is true of most every game now, they do very little to hide this. The level grind, the uninspired quests, the ludicrously hard boss fights, it all comes together to make you shell out more money for less gratification. In fact, given that most endgames require large groups of players, your input becomes invisible amongst the unbridled throng of spells and people shouting about DPS.

You will often spy developers lauding their achievements in creating a living, breathing world. I don’t mean to be harsh, but these people are liars. They’ve not created a world, they’ve created a set, similar to those used for films except substantially larger. They may have stuffed it full of actors and props, but it’s no more alive than a strip of celluloid. There’s no life in an online world, it’s all heavily scripted and rigidly defined so that what variation the players experience is extremely limited.

If you were to map the average “life” of a Warcraft character you would most likely find that they are worryingly similar. Every player does the same quests at the same levels, kills the same creatures, collects the same useless ingredients. If they’re lucky, their race choice will allow them a slightly different set of quests from another player, but not always. A living world would let players build their own stories, have their own unique tales to tell.

This isn’t a problem in single player games because, by their very nature, they have pre-made stories ready for your consumption, designed to be told through a narrative structure that progresses along with you. Multiplayer games don’t have this safety net being, as they are, intent on creating an entire world around you, rather than situating you inside one that has already been built. Come into our world, the MMO will cry, be who you want to be or who you wish you were, unlock your potential in a risk-free environment.

It doesn’t annoy me so much that they don’t provide these worlds, as I am aware how monumentally difficult that might be, but that they lie about having already done so. There’s no emotional connection to an MMO world because, despite claims made by most developers, your character isn’t really part of it. The world itself is frozen in time, never progressing except for sudden and frustrating jumps forward when expansion packs are launched, and your avatar moved through the world so unnoticed that he may as well have never existed.

The MMO ideal appeals to the part of the mind that likes to make stories, your inner writer. You may be terrible at writing in the real world, but everyone’s life has a story behind it and the realisation of that is what makes MMOs so enticing: you can make a new life online, built from the various events and occurrences, and it will be like your real one but so much cooler. What actually happens, of course, is that you are slotted neatly into one of perhaps 20 different life stories replicated thousands of times. There is no individuality, no sense of self, everything has already been hard coded by the developers, and the only time you really get a choice is when they want you to have one.

You would think that people would know the world is not made up merely of sword fighting and auctions, that for it to be truly alive there must be more within it than mere violence and commerce. There’s science, art, love, solitude, togetherness, independence, and so much more. If you could guess the course of someone’s life from a single glance, knew how they got to that point without having to ask, what would be the point? You can’t stare at a girl in your Film class and go “I know everything about her, from her early life, where she lived, how well she did at school, right up until what brought her to this very place”, that’s not how life works.

Life is about secrets and unknowns and stories above all else.

I know that this is hard to put into a game, to replicate everything about life that makes it feel alive, and I’m not saying that developers should already be there. They should most definitely be trying to get there of course, but all I ask is that, until they manage it, they stop treating us like mindless sheep and lying to us about it. No, your MMO world isn’t a “living and breathing” universe yet, and until it is you will get nothing but bile from me if you declare it as such.

I want a narrative, a journey, almost unique to everyone else, that I am able to convey to people via conversation or trophies or word of my exploits in the press. I want the MMO to be the world I can’t have in reality, the one where you can be famous and have fun, yet without having to follow the same path as everyone else. I want freedom and individuality in a virtual world full of other people seeking the same thing, where half the fun comes from sitting around a virtual fire and asking other people how they came to be at this point themselves, hearing a new story each time.

I want the chance to be the person online that I can’t be in the real world.

Tales of Monkey Island: Episode 3: Lair of the Leviathan – The Verdict

Tales of Monkey Island: Episode 3: Lair of the Leviathan – The Verdict

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Reviewing an episodic game is one of the few things that gets easier the longer the series goes on. No new gameplay mechanics to detail and assess, it all boils down to story telling, plot and the general atmosphere of the product. In short, the important parts of any adventure game.

This new episode of Monkey Island begins with Guybrush and co. trapped inside the mouth of the second biggest manatee I’ve ever seen after an attempt to discover the location of La Esponja Grande. To make matters worse, a smokin’ hot pirate hunter managed to sneak her way on board prior to the devouring, and is now in the process of sulking. It’s a somewhat unbelievable situation, but like with all Monkey Island plots it manages to work.

There is a feeling that every Telltale game up to this point have been, to some extent, prototypes for this rather than games in their own right. It’s not a feeling that existed before this game, but when one takes into account the various changes in the production method for Monkey Island, it becomes a little clear. The lack of repetition and back tracking between the various episodes, the serialised plot, the clearly defined and individual characters, they all stand out in ways that Sam and Max or Wallace and Gromit did not.

Despite the serialised nature of the series, episode 3 has done well in providing the monthly dose of progress and achievement that you require from an episodic title. Your goals are clearly defined, and achieving them feels like a success rather than a trap to pull you into the next chapter. It can’t stand on its own as a game, but then it’s not meant to. An episode of Lost will not stand on its own either, for example, and while Monkey Island is nowhere near as convoluted and drawn out as that show it still borrows from the same serial model.

Telltale have said before that this series of Monkey Island can be thought of as one game split into five parts, and their commitment to that borders on caste-iron. There are a few flaws that nibble into the game’s success, but they are quite minor and often countered by something awesome not long afterwards. For instance, without giving too much away, a lazy mechanic is used at the start of the episode to deprive you of an item you will have carried through the previous episodes, only for a much cooler item to be acquired later, albeit for a much shorter time. It’s almost a one-step backwards, two forwards approach except I am loathe to bestow that upon them just yet. Not until they fix the needlessly stupid item combination mechanic.

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People have picked up on this before, and perhaps Ben has even mentioned this in his previous reviews, but when games created by amateurs using a freeware toolset allow items to be combined by clicking one item onto the other, Telltale’s method is flawed. I would almost go so far as to say their combination box is old hat, but even some of the very earliest point-and-click adventure games had no problem with item combination. They’ve managed to create a solution for a problem that never existed, and it’s not even nearly as good as the solution already available.

I don’t like the way you move Guybrush either. Why have they suddenly decided that pointing and clicking is unacceptable? You use it for interacting with the world in every other way, so why not moving?

These are not new problems to the series, however, and they are minor niggles at best. In fact, I’m hard pressed to find anything to complain about properly in this new episode. The jokes are funny, almost laugh-out-loud so on some occasions, the plot works, and despite some disappointing stereotypes the new characters are entertaining. The only thing I can comment on is something that has yet to become an actual problem, only has the potential to become so.

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Telltale love the franchise, that much is very clear, and are very aware of what it is the fans want to see. To that end they’ve slipped in references and homages to older games, brought back old voice actors and characters, and it has worked very well. I just worry that they are beginning to edge closer to the fanservice line. They’re not there yet, not by a long shot, and they’ve done a remarkable job of having a proper position in the story for any returning characters, but all it would take is a single slip. One gratuitous piece of fanservice could, in my opinion, dent the merit of this series. They’re not there yet, and hopefully they never will be, I just hope they are aware of the dangers.

I’m sure they are.

This is the sort of piracy even Lily Allen would endorse.
This is the sort of piracy even Lily Allen would endorse.
Blood Bowl – The Verdict

Blood Bowl – The Verdict

I am not, by design, a very sporty person. This makes me a curious person to review a game that, behind all its violent trappings, is still a sports game. I don’t watch or play sports, but Blood Bowl still manages to speak to me in a way that I imagine football and rugby speak to the ordinary and well adjusted members of society.

Blood Bowl is a curious sort of mash up of American Football and Speedball, created by Games Workshop as a tabletop game and finally brought to the PC by Cyanide Studios. You choose a team from a handful of typical fantasy races and kick, punch, bite and claw your way into scoring more touchdowns than the other guy. On the face of it, the game is simply a turn based American Football in fantasy trappings, but to declare Blood Bowl merely that alone would be incorrect.

My biggest issue with sports, as an objective observer, is the lack of violence. There is something primal in me that requires all team sports to relate back to gladiatorial combat, and few sports manage that in reality. There are violent sports, sure, but the hideous rules and primadonna players make them less interesting. Blood Bowl avoids this by pushing out almost all of the in-game rules, opting to make the majority of the constraints related to player stats rather than how they are allowed to act.

Your players in Blood Bowl have four specific stats: movement allowance, strength, agility and armour value. These influence your dice rolls and declare how effective each player is in a specific role. High agility players will be good runners and have enviable ball skills, but will tend to be rather squishy, whereas high strength players will be much more suited and smashing the opposition into the dirt but will likely also be clumsy as a newborn lamb when it comes to ball control. The different teams have different arrangements of these stats, and as a result picking the right team for your play style is of the utmost importance.

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My preferred team during the game is Dwarfs. When portrayed against other teams, the Dwarfs are ridiculously hardy, but also ludicrously clumsy. The majority of a Dwarf team will be made up of players called blockers, which should give some indication as to the usual Dwarf tactics. They’re all about being violent enough to prevent the opposition from getting close to the one player who can actually carry the ball. Yes, the Dwarfs are so monumentally clumsy that only the handful of more specialised players can even come close to maybe picking up the ball.

During my first few hours of play, it was this quirk of the Dwarf race that led me to absolutely loathe the game. I did eventually overcome this irrational hatred however, once I realised the true cause of my frustration. It is very important that you understand this if you have any intention of buying this game: despite including a single-player mode, Blood Bowl is for online play. The playing the game offline, while somewhat fun on easy, is dangerously unforgiving on normal and higher. I don’t want to claim that the computer fixes dice rolls, as that would be childish and unprofessional, but if I were playing the tabletop version against an anthropomorphic personification of the CPU I would find myself surreptitiously checking to see if they were using trick ones. The computer will pounce on any chink in your defences, sometimes with attacks that you could swear would never ever work, with unprecedented accuracy and crush you. It’s frustrating, and after four hours of back to back matches I was about ready to surrender.

Some may say that this stems from my total failure to grasp the metaphysics of sports in general, that athletic tactics are useless when provided by me for I cannot understand the nuances of a competitive sporting event. That may be true. On the bright side, however, taking the game online made the game much more enjoyable. Once I had worked out exactly how to navigate the somewhat clunky interface, the online competitions were much more fun and engaging, and the persistent nature of the online universe means that you can become attached to your players, levelling them up and choosing which talents you want them to have after each outstanding game. This makes it all the more painful when they die horribly, of course, but also all the more sweeter when it is you who does the killing.

It’s a game of stark contrasts then. On the one side you have a satisfying tactical system, where every movement you make will have a direct affect on the flow of the game, on the other a fiddly interface at times and a great source of mind numbing frustration at times. When things work the game feels amazing, but the one time a dice goes against you will be enough to start the hair pulling. But that’s how it should be, right? Isn’t that how sports tend to unfold, every mistake by your team becoming a beacon of rage and hatred for the fans? Blood Bowl captures that perfectly, except with the added bonus of being able to literally kill a player that has wound you up something chronic.

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Example. A recent online league match pitted my Dwarfs against a team of Lizardmen. Lizardmen are tougher than Dwarfs but even more clumsy, with the exception of their star players, the Skinks. These things are tiny and weak but can run like the clappers, and their high agility means they can slip through your defensive line like they were mist. As a result, I quickly went 1-0 down and spent the rest of the game trying to claw my way back to a draw. Despite a spirited attempt, my beer-pickled Dwarfs fell short and I lost the game. Still, I went away happy in the knowledge that, in one of the last few turns, one of my Dwarfs punched a skink so hard that it dropped dead on the pitch. In my mind I pictured the slippery little bastard’s head erupting in a volcano of gore as twenty pounds of Dwarf-fist punched right through. Skinks are cheap to replace, but that sweet taste of vengeance is priceless.

So I suppose the best way to describe Blood Bowl would be as a legitimate sports game, albeit with sanctioned violence and a legal channel for revenge. It has a few design oddities that can become frustrating: the unashamedly evil AI, the clunky interface, and the brain-strippingly annoying commentators (who can be turned off, thankfully), but the core game is enjoyable enough to keep you coming back for more, even if sports are not your thing.

Word of advice, though. I recommend playing a nice online league with friends or people of a kind disposition from your preferred online community. This game will annoy you from time to time, and it’s best that you experience that with people who aren’t going to be sending you ‘lol noob’ messages every five minutes. Just a thought.

In spite of a few oddities this is a game that makes me wish this sport were real.
In spite of a few oddities this is a game that makes me wish this sport were real.
Wolfenstein – The Verdict

Wolfenstein – The Verdict

It must be a little annoying to be a German in the modern day.

The usual place to begin when characterising an antagonist, according to the American media especially (although I admit it is not exclusive to them) is Europe. Depending on exactly what kind of villain they want will depend on where they look, but the top two choices are England and Germany. Depending on the current global climate, the prevalence of each choice will swing one way and then another.

That said, Nazis seem to never go out of style.

Wolfenstein is a game that takes every single Nazi stereotype and crams it into one game; from the Thule Society to busty blonde assassins, this game has it all. There’s even the odd Nazi zombie and jet-pack trooper. Oh, and a blimp.

That’s Wolfenstein in a nutshell really. The very first Wolfenstein was a game where you shot Nazis, hundreds of them, for essentially no reason other than Nazis are clearly very evil. While there was an arguable plot, it was so thin as to be irrelevant. Raven have learned a little over the years, but still the game boils down to shooting Nazis in the face because they are Nazis.

To be fair, this iteration does have a distinct plot. You play the Polish-American super spy William Blaskowicz, a name that is made even more ludicrous when shorted to his nickname, B.J. Apparently following on from the now dusty Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Billy has been sent to the obscure German town of Isenstadt to help the local resistance bump off a particularly irritating Nazi General. Your arrival at this town is where the game begins.

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The plot is actually quite entertaining, if taken in the proper context. If you come into Wolfenstein expecting a nuanced and deep plot á la Bioshock then you are, quite frankly, a fool who is about to be very disappointed. Wolfenstein is a B-Movie, harnessing everything you expect of a movie let loose upon on the Nazi related myths, dialled up to eleven and shoved into a game. It’s cliché, it telegraphs some key plot points very early on, a little generic, but ultimately very entertaining.

The reason all these strange and intriguing myths have built up around Nazism, the Thule Society and other alleged links to the occult, are precisely because they have a certain dramatic quality that, when coupled with what we know to be true about the Nazis, makes them compelling villains. My brain can never truly comprehend the horror of the Holocaust, the millions of dead for no rational reason, but give me people tapping mystical energies for the means to win a war and become gods and that’s something I can get behind. Not very historical, and it’s certainly not going to win any prizes for it’s treatment of the true horrors of war, but this is a game for entertainment. The occult is a much easier thing to make entertaining than attempted genocide.

This may sound a little like Wolfenstein is a bit lazy in its design, but that’s not strictly true. The story is a bit weak, a bit safe and generic, but on the other hand it is in no way convoluted. It serves as a gentle hand to guide you through the various missions and set-pieces the game has to offer, a strange pre-GPS GPS to usher you through the open world aspect.

It was the open world that made me decide I liked Wolfenstein. It can be best described as a condensed version of the Far Cry 2 model. You get missions elsewhere on the map, you go from A to B while occasionally visiting a gun shop on the way, and the enemies respawn each time you do this. In Far Cry, the respawning enemies was a massive frustration because the commute between missions was so vast, stopping at every intersection to have a gunfight with some locals and then breaking out the socket set to beat your car back into working order. Wolfenstein avoids this by having a nicely compacted world, traversable in five or ten minutes, meaning that while you may get somewhat irked about having to run from your briefing to your mission you won’t be fed up of it by the end. You might not enjoy it, but it won’t actively detract from the game.

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I found it hard to find anything that would actively detract from the game, to be honest. My one gripe might be that, difficulty wise, the game is a little on the easy side, until the very end where it becomes far too hard for my liking. This is largely down to the magical powers you accrue throughout the course of the game, some of which get a little broken as you upgrade them.

Allow me to illustrate. Of your four powers, the shield is by far the best. When you first acquire it, it’s soul purpose is to melt bullets aimed at your squishy bits, giving you time to pick off the vile villains at a leisurely pace. Its one weakness is that it does not stop flesh, meaning mêlée centric enemies can still charge right up and beat your face in. This flaw is, however, completely undone with the second upgrade, which causes the shield to disintegrate most enemies who touch it. It’s a very cool effect, but it also borders on being a win button.

There’s a fine line that developers need to walk when balancing supernatural powers inside games, and it is never done correctly. The player has to feel powerful, but also maintain some challenge to the game. Most developers come down on the side of challenge, which somewhat detracts from the purpose of having supernatural powers in the first place. Raven have come down on the side of power, but that has made the game easier and there’s no getting away from that. The difficult thing is deciding whether that’s a bad thing or not.

In my opinion, the powerful feeling Wolfenstein provides works well in context. I must stress how important it is to go into this game in the right way. Its B-Movie nature perfectly suits the gung-ho madness that the powers provoke. Things explode, you fire billions of bullets at faceless enemies, and the whole time you are thinking that Wolfenstein is an Action Game that feeds on the Die Hard definition of the word ‘action’.

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The game has a few problems. The deliciously gory bullet wounds are a blink and you’ll miss it affair, vanishing after less than a second in some instances. The toughness of the enemies is very strange, with the first cultist enemy being more dangerous than the crack warrior women who turn up much later. The roster of weapons is relatively small. You could guess the endgame twist after only ten minutes of play. The final boss is monstrously hard and frustrating. The mouse sensitivity is a bit weird at times. The manual lists Xbox controls first. I could go on.

But I won’t.

The problems, for the most part, are minor. When listed like that they seem a lot more numerous than they are, and they are much less noticeable in game. When it comes right down to it, there is a simple question that will reveal whether you will like this game: Do you like action movies? If the answer is yes, you will like Wolfenstein. If you are more of the serious cinema sort of person, you might find Raven’s latest offering a little… dry.

Bang Bang Mein Herr
Bang Bang Mein Herr
Game Diary – Champions Online – The Razor Winds of Canada

Game Diary – Champions Online – The Razor Winds of Canada

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This is part two of my ongoing series of diaries from the world of Champions Online, written in character as The Exclamation.  This week, fresh from his victory over the Qularr, Ex is sent to Canada to help the armoured mounties defeat a strange zombie invasion brought about by a sudden and dangerous storm.  He is not amused.

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