before the first few hours: Bioshock Infinite

March 26, 2013


I’d been suffering from shooter fatigue for quite a long time before I found that I was enjoying Far Cry 3 almost in spite of myself.   The endless slaughter of virtual enemies was still somewhat tiresome, but FC3 had enough distractions and side projects to take on that I felt like I could still enjoy what the game had to offer.

And then the Newtown shooting happened, and suddenly I felt sick again.

From that link, which I wrote back in December:

The narrative [in FC3] is where the game’s more or less fallen apart for me, is the thing.  While I appreciate that the game is actually attempting to say something (in that you start out as a whimpering trust-fund douchebag and gradually turn into a sociopathic killing-machine douchebag whose friends (the same friends who you’ve been trying to rescue) are super-creeped out by you and your murder-lust (they actually look into the camera (i.e., your eyes) as if they don’t recognize you)) – in other words, the game is saying that killing hundreds of people doesn’t necessarily make you a hero – the game also requires you to kill hundreds of people in order to advance the narrative; you don’t have a choice in the matter.

And then, a few paragraphs down, I wrote this:

I was originally going to start this post with a hypothetical challenge; would it be possible for me to play any games in 2013 that didn’t involve the firing of a gun?  Then I remembered that Bioshock InfiniteTomb Raider and GTA5 were coming, and that pretty much ended that – I won’t be missing any of those games unless my wife or my newborn son is on fire.  BUT.  I think I’m going to try and get through as much of 2013 as possible without playing any shooters.

Well, here we are.  I’ve finished Tomb Raider – and enjoyed it, for the most part.  And I have not played Gears of War: Judgment, or Crysis 3, or Metal Gear Revengeance, or Dead Space 3.

And when I get home tonight, I’m going to be firing up Bioshock Infinite.  It’s one of the only big AAA games that’s coming out this year that I promised I wouldn’t miss.  The original Bioshock is one of the watershed moments of this generation, after all – and even if the gameplay doesn’t quite hold up these days, the atmosphere and the storytelling still do.

But as much as I’m looking forward to checking it out, I’d be lying if I weren’t apprehensive about all the murdering I’m going to have to do.  What does it say about games as a medium when the game that’s being touted and hyped as the most important story-driven game of the generation still makes you kill lots of things as you get from Point A to Point B – and how one of the game’s selling points is that you can kill these things in lots of interesting and unique ways?

*   *   *

I’ve been trying with all my might to avoid any and all preview coverage of Bioshock Infinite.   This even extends to reviews; I’m aware that it’s been getting very high scores, but I’ve not read any actual reviews or analysis.  This has been very hard of late, as the game’s presence has blanketed pretty much every website I visit with ubiquitous advertising.

But I’m also contractually obliged to link to anything that Tom Bissell writes, and his Grantland interview with Ken Levine is, as usual, very interesting and informative without even really getting into the game itself.  They talk about the game mostly from a writer’s point of view; how game writing differs from novels and screenplays, and they even get into this shooting business a little bit:

[TB:]  Here’s the weird thing, to me, about BioShock. It draws in first-person-shooter nuts who love to electrocute people and set them on fire. It also draws in the disaffected philosophy PhD candidate and gives him something to think about while running amok. A belief of mine is that shooters are made for naughty children, and we all like to become naughty children sometimes. When a shooter can take that mischievous core impulse and enrich it with something that feels genuinely thoughtful, well, that’s lightning in a bottle, isn’t it?

[KL:] Look, I can’t say I’m a man of high taste. I’m a man of low taste. I like action movies and comic books — not that all comic books are of low taste. Not that all action movies are of low taste. I like things exploding. I like candy and cookies. I’m not a sophisticate in any way, shape, or form. My wife and I live the lives of 14-year-old kids; we just happen to be married and have enough disposable income that we don’t necessarily have a bedtime. If I could sit around and eat pizza and ice cream — and not fancy pizza — and watch Lord of the Rings and play video games, I’m a pretty happy guy.

Ken doesn’t quite answer the question, and even Tom’s question addresses the perception that I find somewhat troubling, which is that we should at least be grateful that Infinite is offering something more than just an opportunity to kill hundreds of things, even if killing hundreds of things is a vital, integral part of the experience.

Wouldn’t it be something if we could find something else to do to fill in the time between story beats besides shooting a gun?

ch-ch-ch-changes; the first few hours of Far Cry 3

December 5, 2012


[Before I get into today’s post, I must link to this newly leaked footage of Ruffian’s cancelled Streets of Rage reboot.  Streets of Rage was one of my JAMS back in the Sega Genesis days; my brother and I played all 3 games for hours and hours and hours.  I’ve been wanting an HD remake for years, and Ruffian seemed like just the right developer to pull it off (even if Crackdown 2 was a shitshow), and so this is very much the epitome of a happy/sad thing.]

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I’d be hard-pressed to explain just what’s happened to me over the last few weeks; it could be that the anxiety medications are finally kicking in, or it could be my shift from trepidation to acceptance and now genuine excitement about being a new father, or it could be the simple act of driving a car into New York City and thereby kicking a deeply-held fear square in the teeth.  I suppose it’s some combination of all of those things, but whatever it is, I’ve been feeling like a new, changed man.  And it feels good.

(It feels good even though I turn 37 on Saturday, which is a weird, crooked number that is much closer to 40 than I feel comfortable with.)

In terms of gaming, this feeling of change has manifested itself already, without me even realizing it.  For one thing, as my friend Gred correctly pointed out, I feel a huge weight has been lifted off of my shoulders now that I’ve given up on Assassin’s Creed 3.  Ever since I started this blog as my half-hearted attempt at breaking into professional game criticism,  I’ve felt compelled to play (and try to finish) as much as I can get my hands on, even if only so that I can be part of the conversation – even if that conversation is really just me listening to podcasts and reading smart people on Twitter.  The reality, of course, is that I am not a professional game critic, and I just don’t have the time to spend playing stuff I don’t enjoy just for the sake of being an observer of other people’s conversations.  And now that I can accept that, I kinda like it.

Continuing in that vein, I will not be playing Hitman: Absolution.  I’ve never been able to get into that franchise in previous entries, and their horrendously ill-conceived Facebook ad campaign (covered here with the usual great aplomb by Leigh Alexander) turned me off completely.  I don’t want anything to do with that game or that franchise ever again.

Switching back to the “changed-man” vein, I am playing Far Cry 3.  This is notable (for me, anyway) for three specific reasons:

  • I had absolutely no intention of ever playing this game until the reviews starting coming in;
  • I’m playing it on my PC, instead of the 360; and
  • I’m willingly playing a first-person shooter, even though I’ve been bitching endlessly about shooter fatigue.

And since I’m into bullet points today, I’ve chosen to play FC3 on my PC because, among other things:

  • my 360 has been making terrible sounds lately and I’d really like it to last until GTA5 (unless there’s a PC port; this also goes for Bioshock Infinite);
  • because I don’t want to kick my pregnant wife off the living room couch if she’s comfortable;
  • because the game probably looks better on my medium-grade PC than it would on my 360; and because… drumroll…. 
  • I kinda don’t give a shit about Achievements anymore.

As for the game itself… I’ve heard it described as “Skyrim in the jungle with guns”, and even though I’ve only played for an hour or so, I certainly can see how that description makes sense.  This is one of the most dynamic open worlds I’ve ever seen; things are happening around you constantly, and not just necessarily to you but to your enemies as well.  As an example, I was wandering around hunting for boar when a group of pirates happened to drive up and began attacking me; but then a pack of rabid dogs started attacking them, whereupon I just hung back, patched myself up, and made sure I was ready for whoever survived.  This was not a scripted sequence – this is just something that happened.

And even though I only played for a short time, my shooter fatigue never kicked in.  This is partially because the game is absolutely gorgeous, and it’s really easy to get lost in the scenery.  It’s also partially because there is SO MUCH TO DO.  It’s not just shooting enemies; it’s hunting animals and gathering plants, and about using the materials you get in those hunts and gatherings to craft materials that you absolutely need in order to survive.  There are radio towers you must ascend and disable – which, as in Assassin’s Creed, opens up an area of the world map.  There are pirate outposts you must reclaim for the natives, which turn into fast-travel points.  There are these Trials, which are essentially shooting gallery mini-games, which reward you with points and XP.  Yes, there’s XP – this is just as much an RPG as it is a shooter, with skill trees and abilities and such.

I can only give the game two knocks thus far.  The first is that the main bad guy’s name is alarmingly close to my own last name – they’re not spelled the same, but they’re pronounced almost identically, and he’s a scary motherfucker, and more than a little intimidating.  (The opening sequence of FC3 is absolutely outstanding, and the bad guy’s performance is a particular stand-out.)  The second, more problematic issue is that the game’s display never shuts up.  The game is constantly reminding you of your primary objective, even if you’re deliberately doing a side objective; it is also constantly telling you every time it updates its in-game encyclopedia/codex/whatever, which is unnecessary and annoying and requires too many button presses to get rid of.  This can be frustrating, in that the developers have crafted this amazing, immaculate world for you to explore, which you are constantly being interrupted from exploring.  They won’t just let you be.  Granted, there are wild animals and forest fires and pirates pretty much everywhere, so it’s not like you’d ever truly be at peace in the world – but at least you can be immersed in that experience without constantly being reminded that there’s other stuff you need to be doing.

 

weekend recap: many dead things

September 24, 2012


I probably added around 12-15 hours to my Borderlands 2 campaign after Saturday’s post.  I have a lot more to say about it.  But before I do, there’s a couple other things to talk about:

– Firstly, one can’t talk about cel-shaded graphics without talking about Jet Set Radio, and when I needed a break from Borderlands 2 this weekend I remembered that I’d downloaded the XBL demo of Jet Set Radio HD.  I’m thrilled that a lot of beloved old games are getting HD remasters, but I’m also noticing a recurring problem – the games always played better in my memories than in my hands.   (The Tony Hawk HD thing from earlier this summer also comes to mind.)  JSR looks absolutely fantastic – after all these years, that art style is still brilliant – but it also feels incredibly stiff in my hands, and I found myself making the exact same mistakes in maneuvering that I did 10 years ago (or however long ago it was).  That being said, I still love the HD remastering treatment, and I can’t say it enough – I would LOVE to see a Skies of Arcadia remaster.  FACT:  JRPGs don’t have the same control problems that 3D action games do.  Let’s make this happen!

– Speaking of demos, I also played a tiny taste of the demo for Resident Evil 6.  There are three different chapters in the demo, and I played around 10 minutes of the first one on the list.  (I’m not a big enough fan of the franchise to really care about it one way or the other; I’m well aware that I’m one of the only people on the planet that thinks that RE5 is a much better game than RE4.)  So, the biggest thing, obviously, is that you can move while aiming!  Welcome to 2012!  And yet, it’s still incredibly awkward-looking!  I sometimes feel that the developers of these Japanese mega-franchises – RE, MGS, FF, etc. – live in a hermetically-sealed bubble, unaware of the advancements in animation, storytelling, and general gameplay conventions that have transpired over the last 20 years.  I appreciate their slavish devotion to keeping each game true to its roots, but, I mean, Jesus Christ.  Have they never seen people walking around and carrying guns in other games or films or TV shows?   Besides that, it should also be noted that the graphics look a little rough – RE6 is nowhere near as nice and clean and crisp as RE5, though this may be because the demo is an early build.  In any event, I didn’t really have RE6 very high on my priority list, and this demo didn’t really do anything to change that.  It’s still on the GameFly queue, for whatever that’s worth.

– At some point this weekend I received an email that included a code for the first DLC for Darksiders 2 – Argul’s Tomb.  As much as I love that game, I’ve gotta say that this little self-contained mini-adventure was a little… meh, actually.  I hate using that word unless I have to, but that’s pretty much the best way of putting it.  It’s around 2 hours long, there’s no achievements, it’s very combat heavy, and none of the loot I picked up was particularly good.  It’s free, though, so it has that going for it, which is nice.

– I am an idiot.  I wanted to try out Steam’s Big Picture Mode on my HDTV this weekend, but it wasn’t until I’d moved everything around that I realized that my PC didn’t have an HDMI out, and that I didn’t have an adapter.  Oh well.

– It’s just as well, anyway, because had I gotten it to work, I would’ve ended up playing Torchlight 2, but with a keyboard and mouse on my couch, which would be weird.  I did spend 5 minutes with T2, actually, but the honest truth is that I think I’m still recovering from my Diablo 3 overdose, and left- and right-clicking for hours and hours just doesn’t seem all that enticing.  I will get to it eventually, though.

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OK.  Let’s get back to Borderlands 2.  I’m now around 24 hours in, and my commando is probably level 23 or 24.  (I really ought to write that stuff down before I begin a post.)

For the first dozen hours or so, I only had around 3-4 quests in my to-do list at a time – a main story quest, and then some optional side stuff.  Then a major story event happened (you’ll know it when you see it), and when I shook the dust off and got back to the main city, I’d found that the game suddenly opened wide up, and 20 new side-quests appeared in my quest log.  And so, now, I’m tackling all the side stuff, because the side stuff is, quite frequently, absolutely brilliant.

I have come to appreciate that the game does not take itself seriously.  At first, a lot of the dialogue came off as silly and adolescent (there literally is a “Bonerfart” joke – or is it “Fartboner”?) but as I’ve delved deeper into the side quests and gotten to know the characters a bit more thoroughly, I’ve seen that the game’s got some serious depth in its writing – even if, as I said on Saturday, the overall narrative lacks any real weight.  There are 2 moments that stand out in particular, and I’ll try to keep them spoiler-free (while at least alerting you as to where they are):

1.  Mission:  The Overlooked: “This Is Only A Test.”   The end of this mission was the first time that I’ve literally laughed out loud during a game since Portal 2, probably.  It’s a totally unexpected, expertly delivered, and deeply satisfying punchline, all of which comes after a very tough firefight and (at least for me) a reluctance to even do the thing I was asked to do, being that I didn’t think it was going to work.  (Fuckin’ Dave.)

2.  I can’t remember the mission name, but it was a side mission I was doing in the Wildlife Exploitation Preserve, which ultimately resulted in discovering the true nature of the relationship between Tiny Tina and Flesh-Stick (two characters that I’d met under completely different circumstances, 10 hours previously).  I normally hate how games use tape recordings to tell stories – it feels lazy and contrived and has become almost as ubiquitous as crates – but in this particular case the final reveal was shocking and very, very dark, and when I think about it now I’m not sure there’s a better way to tell that particular story.  Especially since there was no real reason to even include it, and especially since I very nearly walked right over it without even knowing it was there.  This made its discovery hit surprisingly hard, and caused me to think about my last interaction with those two characters in a much different light.   (It called to mind a similar hidden, optional thing I discovered in Psychonauts – during Milla’s psychedelic training level, there’s a hidden room where you discover a rather horrible truth about Milla’s past.  It’s a moment that rings true, though – it’s not manipulative or hollow – and so it carries a great weight.)

*    *    *

I find that even as I’ve improved a great many of my skills (including dramatic (and very necessary) reductions in my reloading time), I still get fatigued with the game’s core action.  This is not the game’s fault, of course – I’ve had a long-standing fatigue problem with the entire shooter genre, and it’s a tribute to everything else that Borderlands 2 does so well that I’m still as heavily invested in the game as I am.  I have no problem fighting my way to an objective, but once I’m done, I run like hell all the way back – I’ll throw down a turret if I have to, to thin out the crowd, but my overriding attitude is “fuck it, I’m done shooting.”  I’ve killed so many goddamned things already, and I’m not even sure that I’m halfway through the game, which makes me shudder at the thought of how many more goddamned things I have to kill.   (Especially if there are Threshers.  Oh, how I hate threshers.  Relentless bullet-sponging bastards, all of them.)

It would be nice if there were other things to do besides shooting, I guess.  (Well, there is a quasi-murder mystery in Sanctuary, but it plays out quite a bit differently than the one in Skyrim.)  I’m not saying this game needs box-pushing puzzles or crafting or anything, and I know I’ve not even come close to seeing everything there is to see and so it’s entirely possible that I’ll run into something that doesn’t involve heavy pressings of the trigger buttons over extended periods of time.   But.  The game’s relentless action can be a bit exhausting, is all I’m saying.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older and my hand-eye coordination isn’t what it used to be, or if it’s that I just don’t have the enduring patience that I used to have, but I’m finding that I’m no longer compelled to finish games that I’m not enjoying.  I used to be obsessive …

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