That Olde Tyme Religion

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It’s like Mount Rushmore. Only sinister. And missing Lincoln. And with Franklin. And also missing Roosevelt. Also, surrounded by sparking lightning. Though, to be fair, that might also happen on the regular Mt. Rushmore, I’ve only ever been there the once and might just have missed it.

The Bioshock series has spent three games delving into a specific idea in each. The first dove into Objectivism and was very successful at it. The second game dug into something like Collectivism and was less successful at it. Bioshock Infinite, however, digs into something more amorphous.

At first, it seems like Infinite is going to be about religious fundamentalism as a governing philosophy. But, that it quickly becomes clear that religion is just part of a greater whole. In truth, much of the beginning of the game is about showing the inherent hypocrisy in the American mind at the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries. We see a happy, religious, and invariably white cast of Real Americans.

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Good old-fashioned American racism. It’s just like your grandma used to make.

So real are these Real Americans, that they’ve begun a sort of idol worship of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. We’re quickly shown how this veneer of a happy society has underlying troubles. Racism is rampant and blatant. Blacks and Irish are an oppressed lower class who exist only to perform the menial and low skilled work that keeps the economy of the floating city Columbia humming. There are even nods to the worker’s rights movements of the period. Eventually, there’s even open warfare between the “Founders” and the revolutionaries seeking equality.

Bring Us the Girl Wipe Away the Debt

Bring Us the Girl; Wipe Away the Debt

But even that conflict isn’t what Bioshock Infinite is really about. When you dig deep down, what you find is a story about fatherhood and redemption. Booker DeWitt, our protagonist, is sent to “bring [them] the girl and wipe away the debt”. He finds Elizabeth–the girl–kept locked away by her father. As the game progresses, Booker reveals that he lost his wife in childbirth and has no children. Perhaps because of this, he slowly grows to become something of a father figure to Elizabeth–protecting her and fighting for her–even as his original mission slips away from him.

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I’m sure he’s friendly.

There are some things that have been mainstays of the Bioshock series since its inception. The Big Daddies and Little Sisters are the two most recognizable and iconic elements–especially visually–of the series. Both are absent here, but they have their spiritual successors, I think. The endless progression of Little Sisters has been replaced with Elizabeth–your charge. The Big Daddies meanwhile have been replaced by the Songbird, her protector. While there is visual similarity, especially in the Songbird, I think this break is largely a good decision for the series. Bioshock 2 seemed to lean too heavily on the original for its plot and setting. This made it feel bolted on due to how complete the story of the original Bioshock was. The clean break that was made with this installment liberated them from some of the burdens that they had been carrying since the first Bioshock.

2013-03-26_00003As a game, there’s truly little to say about Bioshock Infinite. The combat is competently executed, just as it has been for the last two games. The encounters are mostly well designed and the difficulty progression is reasonable. The weapon and plasmid vigor combinations are mostly unchanged, though they are a bit unbalanced. Most notably, the very first one unlocked can quickly become a one-attack kill on most non-elite enemies, even on the hardest difficulties. All this is not to say that there’s anything bad about the combat, just that the changes are mostly evolutionary.

2013-03-26_00008The real strength of Bioshock Infinite is its story. Watching the evolution of Booker and his relationship with Elizabeth is worth the cost of admission alone. I would say that Bioshock Inifinite is certainly better than Bioshock 2 and may even be better than the original Bioshock. It is certainly not a game to be missed.

Bioshock Infinite: 1

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More Action, Less Horror, More Microtransactions

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It’s tough when your buddies turn into tentacle monsters and attack you.

Isaac Clarke’s life hasn’t been good for the last few years. One girlfriend was killed and turned into a shambling undead. Then Isaac was kidnapped by the government and forced to build undead creation engines while his dead girlfriend started showing up as a hallucination trying to convince him to destroy all humanity. His new girlfriend then decides to go charging out to save humanity, but Isaac’s had too much and ends up single again and still more than just a bit mad. And then, of course, religious fanatics decide to try to kill him and destroy humanity. He’s really not having a good decade by the time Dead Space 3 starts.

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Go on, little scavenger bot, scavenge for loose bits. Just ignore that corpse nailed to the wall–it can’t hurt you.

If the Dead Space games have a moral to them, that moral would have to be “it gets worse”. In the first game, we have just one planet threatened. The second game gives us the thread of the spread of undead to many planets due to the evil/incompetent government. The latest installation gives us the undead breaking loose through human space due to the evil religious fanatics. This plays out within each game as well: situations get worse even as Isaac seems to be making progress, every success is met by the realization that things are even more difficult than they originally appeared. In a sense, this progression is the hallmark of the Dead Space series. Even the endings of each game are, at best, momentary victories with dark overtones.

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No, no, scavenger bot, I’m sure the semtex is fine. There’s no reason to worry about it. I’m just going to go ahead and continue onward, but you should totally keep scavenging here.

Dead Space 3, as a game, is very similar to its immediate predecessor Dead Space 2. There are some minor improvements this time around, though. The ammo management game is no longer necessary–all weapons use the same type of ammunition. Weapons can now be created and customized allowing for a more diverse set of choices than was previously available. Unfortunately, this weapon creation system is where the first cracks of an insidious Electronic Arts driven money making system appear.

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Oh good, the science facility. I’m sure that nothing dangerous or nefarious has ever happened here.

The weapon creation system in Dead Space 3 requires you to find various bits and pieces scattered throughout the game–tungsten, transducers, and other materials. These materials are dropped by enemies and found in boxes, but there aren’t a great deal of them. Some grinding and a bit of bug exploitation can get enough, but in reality their prevalence is very low. Of course, EA has a solution to this: downloadable content. For a few dollars here and there, they’ll give you a large supply of these consumable items. Oh, and if you pre-ordered the game, you’ll also start with a few weapons that are vastly superior to those that are available in the early game and are largely viable until the end game. It is “buying your way to victory” in its worst incarnation.

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Who keeps nailing these corpses to the walls? I mean, that doesn’t seem like a good use of your time. They just rot and then you have to nail another one up. Maybe someone should take up taxidermy.

The money grab in the weapon creation system is bad enough, but even worse than that is the first set of actual story-based DLC for the game. It is set immediately after the apparent end of the game and follows the story to its real conclusion. I say real here because the game’s original ending is, in no way, an ending to a Dead Space game. It lacked all of the gloom, hopelessness, and sense of Pyrrhic victory that we’ve come to expect. What does that mean then? We have a $10 mandatory add-on in order to get the experience that we’ve come to expect from the series. And of course, that $10 gets us less than three hours of gameplay.

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I’m sure that this bit is supposed to be glowing green. Yeah, green is a good color, right? Right?

There’s a lot that I liked in this iteration of Dead Space. The idea of a final confrontation and a race to finally make real progress against the necromorphs was compelling, but it ultimately felt like things were pulled down by the nagging attempts to gather real-world money from players. Even though I didn’t succumb to that temptation, the grinding and farming necessary to make up for it distracted from the game itself. And the ending–the one before the DLC–was wholly unsatisfying. I see in Dead Space 3 a good game hampered by the environment in which it was raised, and that foul influence has made it less than it should have been.

Dead Space 3: 0

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Fates Worse Than Death

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The Empress and her daughter enjoy Corvo’s welcome home.

Whenever I’ve played an Assassin’s Creed game, there’s been one thing that I wished that I had: the ability to teleport. It seems that someone else was thinking the same thing when they decided to make Dishonored.

Dishonored follows a rather straightforward premise: Corvo, the mute bodyguard to the queen, is framed for her murder. Following a show trial, unknown allies help him to escape from prison whereupon he is pulled into a scheme to topple the new rulers and find revenge. Along the way, of course, he is first given state of the art weapons by a discredited scientist and magical powers from the mysterious supernatural being called the “Outsider”.

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So, we need to cross the bridge. Options: 1) go across the main deck, fight past guards and automated defenses; 2) sneak under the bridge and reprogram the automated defenses to attack the guards; 3) teleport on top of the nearby buildings and run across the outlying support wires; 4) possess a guard and walk out to the other side

Magic and weapons alone don’t make an interesting game. Interesting games are about choice. Here, I am of two minds about Dishonored. The main plot drags you along with very little in the way of choice: go to that place, kill that man, etc. At the same time, though, you’re often given an exceptionally large number of ways to carry out those tasks. In a sense, it reminds me of the original Deus Ex just in the sheer number of options. This is probably where Dishonored is at its best.

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Tesla coil death traps. Why’s it always got to be lightning? Also, I’m pretty sure OSHA doesn’t like having these installed in the stairways.

Working in beautiful symmetry with choice is the writing. Although you are nearly always cast as an assassin and sent out with murder as your objective, killing is never a necessity. Every mission offers a non-lethal method of neutralizing the targets presented. Of course, merely knocking a high-ranking assassination target unconscious would be woefully insufficient. Instead, the game offers cruel and ironic fates to those you let live. In a sense, the game offers you the choice of justice or vengeance and makes sure that justice is a worthwhile option.

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These wanted posters are they only way to know what your character looks like. I’m a bit dubious of that Emo haircut, though…

Although the plot and setting are both quite interesting, Dishonored does fall into one of the classic traps of gaming–the silent protagonist. Corvo–the character you’re playing–never speaks in game. In fact, the only times you see his face over the entire course of the game are a few times on wanted poster and once during the ending sequence. This situation would probably be fine, but Corvo is imbued with many traits that we don’t necessarily see in him due to this perspective. Perhaps most of all, we don’t see what made the Empress and her daughter both care for him they way they do. This is much the same trap that the original Dead Space fell into.

Its rare that I want to play through a game a second time with a completely different playstyle. On my original pass through Dishonored, I went out of my way to ensure that I didn’t kill anyone (that “Clean Hands” achievement looked interesting), but I feel a desire to play it again with a more…vicious…methodology to see how the game changes in reaction to it. The fact that I’m drawn to play it again says volumes about my assessment of it.

Dishonored: 1

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Why does anyone hang out with Qwark?

Insomniac Games has recently been on an experimentation spree. Rather than continuing with a new, full installment in their flagship Ratchet & Clank series, they’ve been putting together games in the R&C universe but with unconventional play mechanics. In 2011, it was Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One with its design around 2-4 player co-operative play. This time around, it is Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault.

Full Frontal Assault follows after the events of All 4 One–Qwark is no longer president and has become restless. For some unknown reason, Ratchet & Clank are still hanging out with Qwark and are all contacted by a mysterious masked villain who informs them that various planetary defense systems across the galaxy have been disabled. The R&C crew must thus personally defend each of these planets against invasion by marauders for if they call in the galactic police, the evil villain will destroy the defense systems completely.

With this we end up with something like a cross between tower-defense and a (mostly) single-player DOTA clone. Each level presents a wide open map to explore centered around your base. As you complete objectives, your base comes under attack and you’re forced to rush back to defend it or to use the bolts that you’ve gathered in the mission to put up base defenses.

The problem with this setup is that every level feels the same. You always start out without any weapons and must go find them. You always start out without any money to build base defenses. You always must go out in search of everything you need to do your job. Making matters worse, the game only has five maps–two of which are palette swaps of each other and one of which is the end boss level and thus doesn’t have base defense.

What little of the game there was, I enjoyed, but there isn’t anywhere near enough game here. Even for the relatively low cost of admission (its release MSRP was $30, its now down to $20), I can’t recommend the game.

Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault: 0

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