E3 Press Conferences: Sony

I didn’t watch it in real-time.

I was out at dinner during Sony’s big pre-E3 press conference, so when I got back, I scrolled Twitter back a few hours so I could read people’s reactions to the announcements, and in the process got a preview of the insanity that had unfolded a few hours before. This dampened the impact of the hour-or-so’s many surprises, but I’d enjoyed getting real-time reactions during the Microsoft presser in the morning, so I decided it was worth spoiling things a bit.

Last night’s presentation was the perfect way to close out a day of pre-E3 press conferences that notably focused on games. This sounds kind of weird to say, considering that E3 is supposed to be all about games, but the creation and release of current generation consoles has been a distraction for the past few years, and too much time and energy has been devoted to talking about intuitive user interfaces, TV and media collaborations, and other things that technically fall under Electronic Entertainment (2 of E3, the third being Expo), but which are kind of boring to learn about. This is a weird point to make after noting yesterday that Microsoft should have announced TV DVR functionality if they are, in fact, working on it, but I see that particular feature as being a big differentiator, especially considering that the DVRs can be rented for $15 a month from cable companies generally have awful user interfaces, are draconian in what you can do with your recordings (usually nothing) and are generally terrible to deal with.

But I digress. Instead of simply talking about what we knew was coming, Sony willed three gaming unicorns into existence on their stage. They opened the show with an extended gameplay clip from The Last Guardian, a game originally announced in 2009 (!) and whose absence had been a running joke of the past few E3s. Its PS3 roots showed in the clip, with relatively sparse backgrounds and nice-looking-but-not-stunning character models, but Sony also confirmed a release date for next year, turning an infamous piece of vaporware back into the hotly anticipated title it once was. I wasn’t super impressed by the presentation (especially the young boy’s constant yelling for help from his weird bird/squirrel/cat companion), but I’m one of those weird people who hasn’t played Ico or Shadow of the Colossus, the two other efforts from the first-party studio, so maybe I just don’t get it.

More interesting to me was the next announcement, from Killzone developer Guerrilla Games, Horizon: Zero Dawn. Set in the post-apocalypse, it follows a young huntress who gathers resources from and takes down robo-dinosaurs, among other things. The gameplay looked fun and exciting, and the whole thing felt a little like a mashup between Heavenly Sword and The Last of Us, in the best possible way. Guerrilla has always had a strong sense of technical acumen, but their games have always felt a little soulless, so hopefully this will give them a chance to do something a little more character-driven, while also delivering some of the bombast and set pieces that have defined Killzone.

After two fresh IP reveals, it was inevitable that some sort of sequel or reboot would sneak into the mix, and so, after spending most of an intriguing pre-rendered trailer wondering what was being announced, it turned out to be what looks like a reboot of Hitman, considering its lack of subtitle or numeral (pun entirely unintentional). Nothing else was revealed during the presentation, but apparently it’s going to be an ever-expanding open world sandbox, which could be fun. Next came a quick reminder that Street Fighter V is coming out fairly soon, and Sony made a big deal about an exclusive beta starting on July 25 (they announced a bunch of betas–their big Destiny alpha/beta exclusive last year must have been a success!).

Then, it was back to a fresh IP, albeit one that was shown off on the same stage last year. Hello Games’ Sean Murray came out to show off how No Man’s Sky is coming along, with a small taste of vehicular space combat before jumping to a random world and exploring for a little while. Considering everything is procedurally-generated, he had no idea what exactly he was jumping in to, and he warned the audience repeatedly that things might not work right, but never actually had any technical hiccups. Procedural generation is nothing new, but taking it to its logical endpoint (literally creating an entire universe from a few basic building blocks) was an impressive technical feat, even if the game itself doesn’t really look like my cup of tea.

This was followed by something new from Media Molecule, creators of Little Big Planet, a game/experience/thing called Dreams. Like LBP, the focus skews toward creation rather than actually playing, but the idea of creating and then playing in surreal dreamscapes seems like it’ll be a singular experience if nothing else.

Firewatch, a stylized first-person game from Campo Santo, came next. While it’s already been in development for Windows, Mac and Linux, the announcement that it will release on PS4 as well was nice, and it’s a game I hadn’t heard of but am now very interested in. The protagonist is a park ranger-type looking for fire in a watchtower over the summer, and looks to have some solid character development and mystery woven in. The art style reminds me a little of Outlaws, and it’s a reminder of the kind of experience that can be built today with a small team, the right development tools, and the support to realize their vision.

An expansion for Destiny called The Taken King was announced next, along with a fresh look at Assassins Creed: Syndicate focusing on the female protagonist Evie Frye. She looks like one more strong female lead coming to a AAA game this year, and I love it.

Next, a cutesy little adventure RPG (I think?) called World of Final Fantasy was announced for PS4 and PS Vita, but that was just a head fake to talk about the second unicorn of the night: a complete remake of Final Fantasy VII. When Square Enix released a CG movie in the FFVII universe called Advent Children in 2005, fans immediately began to wonder if the more detailed art style of the movie’s characters could be grafted onto the original game. Sony stoked the fire considerably by remaking the entire introduction of FFVII shot-for-shot as a tech demo to show off the power of the Playstation 3 in 2005, sparking years of rumors and clamoring that finally paid off last night. I love FFVII and I love replaying games, so I will be all over this, though it feels like kind of a ludicrous undertaking from a time and cost standpoint. Notably, no release date was given.

After a quick compilation of indie games published by Devolver Digital coming to PS4, the third unicorn surfaced: Shenmue 3. Yu Suzuki, original creator of the Shenmue series, took the stage to announce that he was going to use Kickstarter to fund Shenmue 3 with a goal of securing $2 million in funding. That seems like a modest goal for what ideally would be a massive undertaking (the original game had a budget of about $47 million, which translates to more like $67 million today). Granted, the same development tools that allow small teams to create games like No Man’s Sky and Firewatch will definitely streamline costs, and the game has already hit its funding goal, but there have been a number of high-profile Kickstarter projects that have failed spectacularly due to not being realistic about their budgets recently, and I’d hate to see Shenmue 3 join that particular pile of wreckage.

A quick demo of some exclusive content coming to Arkham Knight followed, along with an update on how Sony’s VR headset Project Morpheus is coming along (as I said yesterday, I’m not sold on the technology yet, no matter who is producing it). Sony then touted its Playstation Vue TV initiative, which they announced as beginning to offer channels a la carte, rather than paying for multichannel packages, the way that literally everyone does it now (even Sling TV, a service that offers greater choice than a traditional cable company’s bundles, but still makes you buy multiple channels together). They kind of downplayed just how big of a deal this is, but there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario here: if Sony can only convince relatively minor rightsholders to offer their channels individually, few people will purchase the service, limiting Sony’s clout to strike further deals. We’ll have to see how it plays out over the next year or so.

Next came a hilariously terrible demo of Call of Duty: Black Ops III, which offered glimpses of both single and multiplayer (the latter of which looked suspiciously like the on-foot combat of Titanfall), but which looked unimpressive compared to most of the other titles shown off and frankly pretty boring. I haven’t been interested in CoD for a while, and BOIII doesn’t look like it’s going to do anything to change my opinion. Sony announced a new partnership with Activision to bring maps and other content to PS4 first, ending a long relationship with Microsoft, but I find it hard to care, even though I know people who will be upset about it. Glimpses of Disney Infinity 3.0, featuring Star Wars characters and content, and Star Wars: Battlefront, which continues to impress, followed.

The night closed with a long, live gameplay demo of Uncharted 4, similar to the way Microsoft closed with Gears 4. The demo featured a mix of cutscenes, gun combat and vehicular mayhem, which really just means it’s definitely an Uncharted game. I wish it was coming this year, but considering the game seemed to crash after its opening cutscene, prompting a restart of the demo, perhaps it’s for the best. It still looks great and I’m excited to play it in 2016.

Overall, yesterday was a great day to be a gamer, and I’m excited for the holiday season and beyond.

 

E3 Press Conferences: Microsoft

I went to E3 once, in 2006. It was loud, crowded, and kind of insane, and from what I read later, it was one of the conference’s more restrained years, happening just before it was scaled back and nearly cancelled entirely. I had fun, but I did a pretty terrible job of really covering anything. The biggest thing that happened that year was the Wii was playable, but actually doing so required waiting in a line for 2+ hours. I declined to wait in line, but one of the guys I went with had his mind blown by some of the early demos.

Today, pretty much everything that could be gained by actually going to E3 can be experienced and consumed by watching the various streaming conferences, trailers and interviews that publishers put up all week. I wouldn’t mind going back at some point, but it doesn’t really seem necessary the way it once was.

This morning, I watched Microsoft’s press conference that has historically served as the official/unofficial kickoff for E3 (the conference doesn’t technically start until tomorrow, but gaming press and industry types have been flooding into the LA area since at least late last week), and it was pretty good! I wasn’t really sure what to expect, since their press briefings have been kind of boring since they announced the Xbox One, but this year they focused almost singularly on games, offering little in the way of comment or filler in between gameplay demos and trailers. What follows is a synopsis of some of my favorite bits.

Halo 5 was the first game shown off, with gameplay that… mostly looked pretty familiar. With 4 player drop-in/out co-op, it looks like there will be a stronger emphasis on team play, but Halo was always more fun with a friend anyway, so this isn’t a huge surprise. Everything looked pretty detailed and fluid, though, and after skipping The Master Chief Collection last year, I’m pretty stoked to revisit that overwrought sci-fi world this fall.

Next was a brief trailer for an intriguing new IP called Recore from Keiji Inafune, best-known for creating the Megaman series (among many other games) at Capcom. The game stars a girl and her robot dog, the latter of which is represented by an AI core that can be put into various other robot forms based on the trailer and its final teaser image.

At this point, Phil Spencer took the stage and offered the only real break in trailers and gameplay, announcing backward compatibility for Xbox 360 games (via emulation, which means it will roll out in waves, very similar to the way the Xbox 360 implemented it for original Xbox games) and a new “Elite” controller that looks very nice but will cost $150 for some reason. The price was not announced during the conference, but when their info page went live, I saw multiple tweets from people who liked the idea but were shocked by the price. Consider me among them.

Bethesda actually had their own press conference yesterday, but Todd Howard of Bethesda came out to talk about Fallout 4, which looks pretty great and comes out in November. Fallout 3 was one of my favorite games of the last generation, and FO4 looks like a worthy successor.

After a fairly boring segment from Peter Moore to talk about EA Access, a service of dubious merit to pay $5 monthly for last year’s games, announcements, trailers and gameplay demos started to come hard and fast. Forza 6, Dark Souls 3, The Division, Rainbow Six: Siege (which will come with two previous-generation games, Rainbow Six Vegas 1 and 2, for free, a savvy move taking advantage of that new backward compatibility), and Gigantic were announced and/or shown off, followed by an indie games showcase that seemed tailor-made to combat Sony’s emphasis on indie games since before the PS4 launched. Some of the games looked pretty good, but Cuphead, a mashup of 1930’s-style animation and 16-bit platforming/shooting gameplay, was a standout.

A Microsoft riff on Steam Early Access called Xbox Game Preview was announced next, with The Long Dark and Elite: Dangerous available to download today. They also made it clear that you can download and try any game in the program before you commit to spending money on it. I’ve occasionally taken advantage of Steam Early Access, and the move is understandable, but it’s not a particularly exciting initiative at the moment.

After that, the deluge of trailers and demos resumed, with a 6-minute gameplay demo of Rise of the Tomb Raider being a standout. Rare announced a collection of 30 classic games that sounds like fun (in particular, I’m excited to play Blast Corps again, even though it has the potential to ruin my memories of how awesome it was when I played it on the N64 as a teenager. Rare also announced Sea of Thieves, an MMO-looking pirate simulator? The footage looked pretty early and more like a proof-of-concept than a working prototype, but it looked fun nonetheless.

Near the end of the show, Microsoft announced a bunch of different VR initiatives. They announced Xbox One to Windows 10 PC streaming previously, but today they said that you could also add Oculus Rift into the mix, streaming from Xbox to PC and then from PC to Rift. It all sounded like a great way to introduce and foreground lag, but a lot depends on how well the streaming works and how tolerant it is of network performance and interference. They also took the opportunity to talk about HoloLens, which led the audience to groan… until a demo showed it projecting Minecraft in 3D on a table. I think the whole thing looks pretty gimmicky (then again, I feel this way about all of the current VR initiatives) but I can see it being a platform seller among the tween set already immersed in all things MinecraftRegardless of how it plays out, it was an impressive demo of a technology that’s inspired almost nothing but skepticism since its announcement.

The show ended with Coalition Games (formerly Black Tusk Studios), who announced an already-rumored Gears of War remaster along with some early gameplay of Gears 4. The latter looked incredibly impressive for what must have been a pretty early demo, though it also felt just a little too beholden to the gameplay beats and concepts established by the first game in 2006.

I’ve read that Microsoft is working on adding TV DVR functionality to the Xbox One, which I’m super stoked about, and it felt like not touching on that (if it is, indeed, a thing) was a missed opportunity. There was a brief bit of lip service where we were told to “tune into our daily show to catch a preview of our new system interface” later today, but if DVR is a feature coming this fall/holiday, I would personally want to shout it from the rooftops.

But maybe that’s just me.

Replay–Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within

It took me almost 20 years to finish Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within.

I first caught wind of the game some time after its release in 1996, when my cousin Matthew had finished it and let me borrow it. This is how I played a lot of games in those days, since my parents were convinced that I was going to “grow out” of playing video games (my dad once said to me, “I stopped smoking when I was 20; when are you going to stop playing video games?”) and only occasionally indulged my habit. Once I had a job and my own spending money, I didn’t need said indulgence, but that was still a couple of years away when I borrowed The Beast Within (its full title is technically The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery, but I’ll stick with its abbreviated title here).

The Beast Within tells the continuing story of Gabriel Knight, a bumbling cad of a fiction author who manages to get himself wrapped up in a series of grisly murders in New Orleans in the first game. In the wake of that game’s events, he writes a “novel” about the ordeal which turns into a bestseller, moves to a crumbling castle in Germany owned by his family (which it turns out is a long line of Schattenjägers, or shadow hunters–basically occult detectives) and starts on renovation and a new novel. Soon he gets wrapped up in a new case potentially involving werewolves, and when he writes his partner/research assistant/not-really-love-interest Grace about it, she hops on a plane from New Orleans to Germany to help, despite his halfhearted attempt to keep her out of it. The game alternates chapters between Gabriel, hunting for clues in the present, and Grace, digging into Gabriel’s family history and its connection to the German monarchy to find a connection to the past.

The game's box, which gives you an idea of the level of pretentiousness/melodrama contained within
The game’s box, which gives you an idea of the level of pretentiousness/melodrama contained within

As a teenager, there were a lot of intriguing things about the game, starting with its box art and its six-CD length. The length was a result of filming the game’s cutscenes and interstitials and compressing them (poorly) into full-motion video (FMV), which was still seen as the wave of the future at the time. Actually playing the game was made more tedious by the constant transition to video whenever your characters did just about anything, but it contributed to the feeling of “playing a movie” at the time, and the attention to detail still feels admirable all these years later.

Unfortunately, one side-effect of the aforementioned poor compression is that the video itself now looks like a smeary mess, especially when viewed in “big movie” mode. The smaller movies look crisper, but it’s much more difficult to get a sense of what’s happening, especially when Gabriel or Grace interact with the many small objects you’ll have to find and click on. In the end, I played/watched the game in big movie mode just to get a better sense of what was happening, even with its trade-offs. It may seem weird that 3900MB of video (give or take the game’s other assets, since the game isn’t solely presented as FMV) would look like such a mess, but we take for granted that compressible video is essentially a solved problem in 2015.

It looks even worse in motion. Trust me.
It looks even worse in motion. Trust me.

The other intriguing thing about the game was its Mature rating by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. My teenage mind ran wild creating reasons why the game would have the equivalent of an R rating, and Matthew was coy about what exactly the explicit content entailed, but having finally finished the game, I do think that the game earns its rating, but only in a cheesy B-movie kind of way. There are a few swears, some late-game violence and the kind of implied sex scene you’d see during the height of Production Code Hollywood, but nothing too salacious. Had I gotten to any of that as a teenager, I would’ve likely been disappointed.

But here’s the thing about The Beast Within: if you haven’t already guessed, it’s a point-and-click adventure game, and while walkthroughs existed even when I first borrowed it, they were much more difficult to find than they are today, and I was shackled by a dial-up internet connection that made finding anything on the internet a chore. As a result, I blundered my way through the game’s early chapters (adventure games always start easy and then ramp up in difficulty as you solve the game’s early puzzles), but got severely stuck in the game’s fourth chapter, where you have to do “research” as Grace by clicking on everything you can find at a series of castles and libraries. Then, when you inevitably miss one tiny clickable zone, you have to go back and retrace your steps to find them all before you can progress. I hit a brick wall and put the game aside.

Neuschwanstein Castle, the most tedious of the locations that must be "researched" in chapter four.
Neuschwanstein Castle, the most tedious of the locations that must be “researched” in chapter four.

I returned to it at some point during my later teenage years, because once Matthew was done with games and I “borrowed” them, I tended to not have to give them back unless he wanted to replay them or explicitly remembered that he wanted them back (which was not often). Since I’d played the game’s early chapters already, I fairly quickly made my way back to the game’s tedious fourth chapter and this time managed to find all of the things I was supposed to and progressed to the game’s fifth chapter. Here I hit a fresh brick wall when I discovered that it was possible to die (in hilariously grisly fashion) at the end of the game’s fifth chapter. Once again, I moved on.

This week, I decided to finish the game once and for all. It’s now available on GOG.com, and it’s telling that the compressed download is only 2.4GB. Rose-tinted glasses quickly caught up to reality when I realized just how macroblocked the video looks to 2015 eyes. Nonetheless, I was going to finish this stupid game once and for all. I remembered a lot of the game’s early puzzles, and breezed through a majority of the game’s first couple of chapters with no problem at all. I even kind of reflexively remembered one of the game’s more bizarre puzzles from the third chapter involving a woodpecker clock and a locked door (if you’ve ever replayed an adventure game, you probably know this feeling of “I’m not sure exactly why I’m doing this, but it seems right for some reason”). I even made it all the way through the dreaded tedium of the fourth chapter… and then the game locked up.

For a few minutes, I frantically clicked everywhere on the screen, alt-tabbed out of and back into the game, and did everything I could think of to make it progress forward. Nothing. Even worse, I hadn’t saved the game since midway through chapter 3, so I had a lot of re-re-replaying to do. I eventually resigned myself to my fate, restarting the game and saving obsessively from there on out. I ran into one other show-stopping lockup, but other than that it was smooth sailing from there. The game just hates me and wanted to throw one more curveball before allowing me to finally complete it.

And complete it I did! I leaned on a walkthrough pretty heavily for the game’s last couple of chapters, but I did so more in the interest of time than anything. Especially once I lost a chapter-and-a-half’s worth of progress, I was determined to just plow through to the end. I started skipping a lot of the interstitial videos, though I did watch every bit of the game’s main plot, including a bizarre but surprisingly-well-staged opera scene near the end of the game’s final chapter. The endgame is the only time when I really, truly needed the walkthrough, because the game’s final task is timed and involves a mix of timed navigation and puzzle solving that I just wasn’t going to solve on my own.

Wander around a bit. Get shot for no reason. Rinse, repeat until you figure it out. Or consult a walkthrough.
Wander around a bit. Get shot for no reason. Rinse, repeat until you figure it out. Or consult a walkthrough.

The game’s ending was relatively satisfying, but after all the time I’d invested in fits and spurts over the past two decades, it felt pretty abrupt. I read later that the game was supposed to be eight chapters instead of the final game’s six, and that budget constraints caused some last-minute cutting that made the game’s final chapter or so feel rushed. I briefly entertained the idea of moving on to the series’ third game, Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, but then I read this description of one of the game’s early puzzles, and decided against it for now.

Sunset Overdrive–First Impressions: Laughter

Despite being able to tell you about many books, games, and movies that I think are funny, most of them don’t actually make me laugh all that much. Sometimes jokes are enough to make me smile without actually uttering anything. Other times, I might voice a quick chuckle that barely makes it past my throat. But it’s not often that I laugh in a sustained, semi-controllable way, and completely losing my mind to hysterical laughter is something that only happens once in a blue moon. It’s not that I’m hard to please, it’s just that my humor center is… muted.

That said, Sunset Overdrive is funny. This is a game that takes place during the apocalypse, which is caused when a massive soda company launches Overcharge, a new energy drink, without doing the proper testing. Everyone who drinks it turns into a mutated creature called an OD (get it?) and those that are left split into a variety of friendly and hostile factions. FizzCo, the aforementioned soda company, cuts off the city from the rest of civilization and sends in a cleanup crew to cover the whole mess up. If this all sounds familiar, well, it should. But don’t let that stop you from playing it.

This is not the usual drab, gray apocalypse
This is not the usual drab, gray apocalypse

The game has yet to completely double me over, but it’s consistently clever and more than once has made me laugh out loud (maybe the best gag so far involves a giant inflatable mascot and its attempt to murder me with its laser eyes). Even when it doesn’t cause a vocal reaction, it’s clear that such care has gone into the script, the staging and the voice acting that it’s hard not to be impressed.

It helps that it’s hard not to have fun.

When you die (which is fairly frequent in the early going), the game breaks out a series of jokes that vary enough that they’ve ceased to be funny after about 5 hours or so. The game also rarely punishes you for doing so. You might lose a little bit of progress, but more often you can jump right back into the middle of what you were doing, though you don’t get any ammo replenishment and your combo meter is reset.

Herkers are tough to take down and spawn regular OD. Expect to be overwhelmed occasionally
Herkers are tough to take down and spawn regular OD. Expect to be overwhelmed occasionally

Said combo meter is increased by killing things and traversing the environment, and if you want it to rise and give you access to the game’s amps, you’d better do both at once. Amps do all sorts of things to your melee attack, weapons and traversal techniques, and the higher the combo threshold for an amp, the wilder the results. One early amp causes a spray of explosions in every direction when you bounce. Another augments your melee attack with a fireball. Considering that there are lots of side missions and challenges currently waiting for me to tackle them, I have no doubt that there are even crazier amps in my near future.

Blowers are fairly easy to kill, but they have a way of disrupting your traversal, killing combos (and maybe you, too)
Blowers are fairly easy to kill, but they have a way of disrupting your traversal, killing combos (and maybe you, too)

I’m excited to play more, and if I’m being honest, the biggest reason why I stopped playing is so I can charge the controller’s batteries. The game’s inclusive, cel-shaded punk rock aesthetic makes it easy to like and hard to take it too seriously, which is good, because very little in the game is serious. Some of the most well-worn tropes of video games are called out even as your character pays homage to them, and since their execution tends to be pitch-perfect, you don’t really care that it’s being a little hypocritical. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to it.

Review: Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea

Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea Episode One was disappointing. It was nice to be back in Rapture and spend a little bit of time with the city as it existed before crumbling prior to the events of the first Bioshock. But the combat was a little too familiar and the experience was over almost before it began, ending with an information dump/cliffhanger that made my head spin. If the plot had been doled out a little better over its running length, the abrupt ending would’ve been a little easier to stomach. Knowing that it was just the end of the first half of the experience and there would be a months-long wait for the second half just made the whole thing more aggravating.

This guy made the end of Episode 1 an aggravating experience.
This guy made the end of Episode 1 an aggravating experience.

Good thing, then, that Episode Two is so much better in just about every conceivable way.

I’m going to avoid talking about the plot as much as I can, because it deserves to be experienced without even minor spoilers. That said, Episode Two puts you in Elizabeth’s shoes for the first time, and it’s not just a voice-and-skin swap. She’s significantly more fragile than Booker, and has to rely on stealth to get her through most splicer-infested areas, especially on the game’s hard difficulty. She has a couple of new plasmids and weapons to help her in this endeavor, along with a stealth indicator that appears above her enemies, but none of it feels out of place, and the execution is consistently fun (and this is coming from someone who is generally terrible at stealth-based games).

Although I still essentially finished the game in a single sitting, it was a much longer sitting than I expected. I spent most of yesterday playing through it, and although I died a good bit (and this time out death is always permanent, another first for the series), most of the time I was moving forward, picking off splicers, listening to new audio diaries, and filling in previously-unexplained backstory for both the original Bioshock and Infinite. If creator Ken Levine had to retcon a lot of these details into the Bioshock mythology, you wouldn’t know it playing through Burial at Sea. It feels like this was always going to be the ending/beginning, a bridge between the two games that makes perfect sense of the jarring connection initially uncovered in the final moments of Bioshock Infinite.

The crossbow was my favorite way to pick off unsuspecting enemies throughout Episode 2
The crossbow was my favorite way to pick off unsuspecting enemies throughout Episode 2

Taken together as a whole, Burial at Sea is more than worth its rather high (for downloadable content) asking price. The ludonarrative dissonance that defines the entire series (why the hell am I sitting at a vending machine buying bullets when there are unhinged junkies all around? Why do I open up desks and drawers scrounging for money and eating and drinking everything in my path?) is still present, but so is the stellar writing and acting, which come together for another sucker punch of an ending. Just like when I finished the original story of Infinite, I stared at the credits scrolling by trying to process what I’d just seen for a few minutes.

I know that the world of Bioshock will continue to grow, but Burial at Sea feels like the end of an era (and considering the recent shuttering of Irrational Games, it most certainly is). I generally feel the same way about DLC that I do about bonus tracks on albums: sometimes good additions, but often unnecessary and almost always nonessential to the point of distraction. But this is different. If you’ve played both Bioshock and Infinite, and want to spend a little more time in Rapture figuring out what makes it tick and how it all came tumbling down, it is absolutely worth your time and money to pick up Burial at Sea.

Replay: Interstate ’76–Completion

(Note: I actually wrote this post a couple of weeks ago, but just now got around to making the screenshots for it. I am still kinda terrible at blogging)

Shortly after my last post, I hit a brick wall. I had previously decided to play I’76 on the game’s middle difficulty, Champ, after breezing through the first couple of missions. I am also a glutton for punishment and am known to play games on harder-than-optimal difficulties for the greater sense of accomplishment and to prolong the experience artificially. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but I honestly get more enjoyment out of finally getting through a tough section of a game. But that’s the topic of another post entirely.

The point is, Scene (the game’s name for the single player campaign’s missions) 7 was kicking my ass. I read through a little bit of strategy for the game as a whole and the mission itself, and remembered that one of the game’s great keys (which you can totally ignore) is a sidearm mechanic where you can pick off a car that’s in the red by aiming your .45 out the side window of your car. If done right, it can drastically diminish the amount of time and ammo spent on each opponent, and once the mission’s over, you’re more likely to get undamaged loot to add to your own car, because you didn’t literally blow every car up to complete the prior mission.

The dreaded cops who stalled out my progress for so long
The dreaded cops who stalled out my progress for so long

One thing I had never even messed with before was my car’s armor and chassis distribution. After many deaths at the hands of Scene 6, I finally made it through by armoring up as much as possible and killing enough of my corrupt cop opponents in a short enough time to limp through their removed roadblock. I also had to regularly shut off my engine to avoid the radar lock of a helicopter overhead.

I’m spending so much time describing this one mission because it’s honestly where I spent a pretty good chunk of my total time with the game. None of the game’s other missions provided nearly the level of challenge this one did, thanks to its leap in difficulty coupled with my own poor strategy in the first few scenes resulting in less capable gear than I otherwise could’ve had. Once I made it through that, things were pretty smooth sailing to the conclusion, despite the fact that I was less than halfway through the game at that point.

A mid-to-late game escort mission. Once again, I'm impressed how much the lighting changes the overall feel of the mission
A mid-to-late game escort mission. Once again, I’m impressed how much the lighting changes the overall feel of the mission

The game’s developers tried to vary the mission structure as much as possible, providing a number of different escort missions, protect-this-building objectives, and even a brief (and kind of silly) stealth scenario, but generally the goal was to shoot the other cars without getting blown up myself. There are a couple of mazes and a few light puzzles (like a water tower that blows up into a ramp to jump over the wall of an otherwise impregnable fortress) as well, but I think when all was said and done I spent maybe 5 hours with the single player campaign. If this were still 1997, I could hop online and blow up the cars of some strangers, but as it is, I’m kind of sad it’s over already.

 

Before and after of the water tower/ramp. The first time I tried to use it I flipped over and had to restart the mission
Before and after of the water tower/ramp. The first time I tried to use it I flipped over and had to restart the mission

I should take a minute to talk about the game’s music. Though the funk soundtrack that accompanies every mission can feel a little dissonant sometimes, for the most part it adds to the late-70s atmosphere of the game. One track in particular has a pretty perfect “shit just got real and you need to fix it immediately” urgency to it, and it’s no surprise that the game’s final cutscene uses it to good effect. I actually had trouble getting the soundtrack to play during the game’s missions, so I manually queued up each mp3 (originally Redbook audio that could be played in any CD player) and set it to loop before I started each new scene. I put a couple of hours into trying to get it to work properly, and the expansion that comes with GOG.com’s downloadable version of the game works as intended, but for whatever reason, I had to settle for a workaround in order to get the complete experience.

Overall, I’m glad that I took the time to get it running (more-or-less) properly, because it brought back some good memories. I can picture being downstairs in my parents’ den, upstairs at my friend Bret’s, and in my cousin Matthew’s kitchen, all locations of computers where I originally played the game. Certain songs and line readings in particular brought me back to a time when afternoons and weekends were for video games, my parents’ disdain be damned.

Replay: Interstate ’76–A Shaky Beginning

Interstate ’76 was first released in early 1997. I played the demo around the same time, and somehow managed to get my hands on the full game shortly thereafter. As I mentioned before, I played a whole lot of demos as a teenager, but somehow in this case there wasn’t a significant gap between “played demo” and “acquired full game”.

Something about the game’s 70’s funk aesthetic struck a chord with me. The soundtrack was awesome, the voice acting solid and the plot surprisingly involved for a car combat game built on the MechWarrior 2 engine. I played through it at least twice, once at home and again at a neighbor’s (his family’s computer was much faster than mine and so played the game at a better framerate). I think I played through some or all of it again at a cousin’s, actually.

The game was not particularly complicated, but it had a good hook of blowing cars up, salvaging them for nicer parts between missions, and putting those parts to use before acquiring even nicer stuff. By the end of the game, the humble V6 you started with has given way to a V10, .30 cal machine guns have been replaced by 30mm cannons, and so on. Since you’re acquiring everything from the husks of your former enemies’ cars, they are perpetually more powerful than you, but that’s kind of how vehicular combat games work.

One time, I was playing the game at home after school, and suddenly the game’s protagonist, Groove Champion, reacted to my taking a beating in the car by deadpanning “ohhhh shit.” My Dad heard, and assumed it was me that had swore, and grunted out my name in that disappointed way that only a father is capable of. I insisted it wasn’t me, but he didn’t believe me for a second. I didn’t get in trouble for it, but I was a little annoyed that he thought I’d so casually swear at a stupid video game. I didn’t, and still don’t, swear in front of my parents.

I decided to replay the game because I had fond memories of it and I wanted to see how it held up in terms of the experience. Also, it was the first thing I thought of. Either way, I created a lot of extra work for myself. While the game was easily found on Good Old Games (GOG.com), it was essentially broken out of its virtual box. Some Googling for workarounds led me in the right direction, but after a few hours of effort, the frame rate of the game was still too high, causing the physics to break and resulting in an unplayable mess.

After a couple more hours, I finally found a simple solution that effectively solved the problem: forcing VSync and limiting it to 30Hz, hard-capping the game’s framerate via nVidia Control Panel. The whole experience reminded me of the way things used to be before video standards and Steam, though I do wonder if trying to play today’s games in another 15 years will yield a similar experience. I also did some shortcut modifying to get a Glide wrapper working (and tried some third party solutions with little success), which really changes the look of the game.

I’ll have to see how things shake out, but so far having Glide support is the most interesting thing I’ve done since I started this experiment. The game’s software mode is perfectly passable as far as gaming engines of its vintage go, but with 3d acceleration, the lighting adds a certain amount of subtext to every mission. The second mission in particular is much more striking with its as-intended sunset setting, as opposed to a slightly darker brown terrain with slightly darker blue skybox in the software engine (click for bigger):

i76

Now that the game is working properly, I’ve sped (pun vaguely intended) through the first third of the game, and once again finding myself remembering some of the game’s more memorable lines and scenarios, just like with Half-Life. Hopefully I’ll power through the rest in the next week or so and have another write-up ready when I’m done with it.

Any suggestions on what I should play next? It has to be something I’ve already played before, but I would consider playing the full version of a game I’d previously demoed, which opens up my options significantly.

Replay: Half-Life: Uplink

I remember most of the circumstances surrounding the first time I played Half-Life: Uplink. At the time, my family’s computer was nestled upstairs in a spare room for reasons I can’t recall, and I’d just acquired the latest PCXL magazine (rest in peace), which contained the demo, among others. I’d already read a little bit about Half-Life and the accolades it was beginning to amass, but there was nothing like experiencing a bit of it for myself.

I played a lot of demos in my teenage years, in part because it was fairly easy to convince my parents to buy me eight dollar magazines as opposed to fifty dollar full-length games, and each of those magazines generally contained hours of entertainment. Then again, my parents actively discouraged my gaming habit, so if they understood the kind of timesink they were enabling, they might not have been so acquiescent.

A few of those demos stand out. The first episode of Duke Nukem 3D, which I experienced (optimally, I think) at 13. Diablo, with its unsettling intro and truly terrifying encounter with the Butcher. Heroes of Might and Magic. Quake. Conquest of the New World, with a demo so long that I spent an entire evening not-quite-completing it.

But none of these had quite the same effect as Half-Life: Uplink. As I played through it today, I mostly remembered the events and layout of its maps, to the point where I felt a wave of deja vu hit when the NPCs started talking at me. I’m not sure if it’s because I played through it a bunch of times after that initial run, or just because it was so memorable to start with, but it wasn’t something I’d expected.

The demo itself is interesting because it’s not simply a slice of the main story. Instead of spoiling any of the experience of their superlative single-player campaign, Valve opted to build a little novella of a demo using the assets and scripting found in the real deal. It doesn’t last very long, but it has some fun moments involving marines rappelling in from an exploding roof, a half-finished burn-everything-and-bury-it job by said marines trying to destroy evidence, and a closing scripted encounter with one of the game’s most formidable foes.

Although the game looks terribly dated by today’s standards, the overall logic of the maps and the scripting and AI hold up very well. Just like I always have, I chose to play the demo on hard, and it had a consistent level of difficulty that had me constantly scrounging for health and (to a lesser extent) ammo, which is certainly the intended effect. I’ve read about Valve’s ability to control the player’s experience, and that was in full force here. At times, it felt more like survival horror as I made my way through the environment, hoping to survive long enough to get the next medpack or ammo pickup.

It definitely felt tuned to compensate for compulsive quicksaving, a habit I fell back into pretty quickly. I also found my muscle memory returning for Half-Life’s weapon selection system, despite having not played it or its sequel in many years. Enemies soaked up bullets and were generally hardy enough to withstand my frontal assaults, so I had to remember how to circle strafe and use corners effectively, since there were no chest-high walls or cover system to aid me. The AI still seems pretty smart after well over a decade, but its overall reaction time feels tuned to be just a little slow to allow the player to come back around a corner and get the drop on a marine or an alien that was previously staring right at you when you turned it.

Overall, I’m glad I took the time to replay HL:U. I like replaying games, to take off the rose-tinted glasses of the past and to judge them on their merits relative to today’s offerings. If all goes to plan, I’m going to start replaying some of the full-length games that were important to me growing up, writing about the experience as I go. Consider this a first taste.