Thursday, August 30, 2007

BioShock gameplay tidbits

We'll close out the BioShock coverage with a short discussion of some gameplay moments and quirks. I'll try to go easy on the spoilers, but it'll be impossible to avoid them. You may want to tread lightly if you're still waiting to play it yourself. In fact, most of this probably won't even make sense if you haven't played the game.
  • I wish I had realized early on just how versatile the research camera is. The game tells you to photograph your enemies in order to unlock damage multipliers and even new powers, but you can also photograph security systems and vending machines. Apparently if you fully research a camera or turret, you can then hack it without having to do the hacking mini-game. As it happens, I liked the mini-game. But still, fully researching the machines would allow you to dedicate all your gene tonics to something other than hacking -- like wrench combat.

  • You have three distinct tracks along which you can upgrade with gene tonics: combat, engineering (hacking), and physical. What's neatest is that you can find complementary tonics in each track for whichever your primary path is. So when I decided I wanted to focus on hacking, I was able to use a physical tonic called "Medical Expert," which gave me a boost of health and EVE every time I successfully hacked a machine. It's a great incentive to open up all your tracks even if you're single-minded in the way you want to play. There is one thing I don't get, though. You purchase new slots at a machine called a Gatherer's Garden. Each GG only allows you to buy one of each slot, and then you have to find a new place to buy another one. Wouldn't it grant you greater control over your destiny if you could choose to spend all your ADAM on one track? I'm sure they had a reason for this decision, but I'm not sure I know what it is.

  • The "natural camouflage" tonic seemed silly when I first got it, but it turned out to be indispensable. It turns you invisible if you stand still for about a full second. This was great when I tripped security alarms, as I could just run around a corner and stand still, and then none of the security drones could see me (alas, it doesn't work if you turn invisible while you're still in their line of sight). Plus, I saved money on activating the bot shutdown. While invisible, you can still turn and aim your weapon, so natural camo plus the crossbow made for an elegant sniping arrangement.

  • I was reading a discussion on a message board about how to kill the Big Daddies. The strategies were endless, most involving some combination of trap bolts, the Electro Bolt plasmid, and fire. People had devised some Rube Goldberg-like ways of taking them down. And it all sounds cool. I just shot grenades at them until they keeled over. After about my second encounter with them, I'd nailed the technique and they no longer gave me much trouble at all. In fact, one of the ways you can upgrade your grenade launcher is to make it so that you take no splash damage from it. Then you can just plug away at close range like it was nothing.

  • After I beat the game, I read the list of achievements to see what I had missed. Strangely, I'm sure I did what one of them asked, but never got credit for it (and it's a big spoiler, so I can't get more specific than that). There's also an achievement for fully upgrading all your weapons. I missed that by one measly upgrade. But with 730 total achievement points from BioShock, it's easily the most I've ever gotten. I hope to play again someday, and if I do I think I could pick up some more.

  • BioShock is a great game, but like any game it's not perfect. Its problems are mostly with the interface at the various machines. For example, you can invent new items at the U-Invent station, which is great, but the station won't let you know how many of an item you already have in your inventory. You can waste resources making something of which you're already carrying the max. And you can't see what gene tonics you have equipped unless you're at the machine that allows you to swap them. The lack of access to important information can be frustrating at times, but the good part is that you're usually not so far away from a relevant machine that it ends up hurting you.

  • BioShock is awesome.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

BioShock!

BioShock review is up now. This review focuses almost totally on the story and themes, so later on I'll try to post some more detailed thoughts about the gameplay.

It's too early for "game of the year" proclamations, but it's safe to say that if I had to make the list now this game would be on top.

Monday, August 27, 2007

King of Kong

In the world of competitive video game playing, Billy Mitchell is the 800 pound gorilla. He was the first person to complete all 256 Pac-Man boards. He held unofficial world high scores in Donkey Kong Jr., Centipede, and Burgertime. His greatest achievement, however, was his world record Donkey Kong score of over 800,000. Set in 1982, the official record stood for over 20 years without any serious threat. And Billy Mitchell liked it that way.

In the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, he's depicted as a man concerned, above all, with his image. Billy Mitchell even looks like a villain. His sleepy blue eyes gaze from under a mane of glossy black hair. His beard is groomed to perfection. A typical outfit is a black dress shirt tucked into black jeans, accented by an American flag necktie. He seems to relish his role as the heavy. The staff of Twin Galaxies, the governing body of gaming high scores, seems fully in awe of him.

Steve Wiebe, when King of Kong begins, doesn't seem to have any idea who Billy Mitchell is. He doesn't seem to care, either. He's shown as a likable, talented guy who's never really been able to put it together. We witness him playing the piano and the drums, see his skillful drawings, and home videos of his once-promising athletic career. His friends and family lower their voices when discussing all the times he's come up short. It's tough to see from the outside, though. Wiebe lives with a wonderful family in a gorgeous house in suburban Washington. But even the house came with a sucker punch: Wiebe lost his job the day he and his wife signed the papers.

Unemployed and aimless, Wiebe sets up a Donkey Kong machine in his garage and gets to work attacking Billy Mitchell's high score. Director Seth Gordon intercuts shots of Steve playing the drums, clips of his old baseball games, and little Jumpman scurrying ever closer up the ladder toward Donkey Kong. The implication is clear: this has all the potential to be another case where Steve Wiebe is almost good enough. Then a funny thing happens.

He breaks the world record.

He doesn't just beat Billy Mitchell's score; he pulverizes it. He races right on through and doesn't stop until he's earned over a million points, some 200,000 higher than the long-standing record. Having finally accomplished something in his life, he sends the tape in to Twin Galaxies to be verified.

The refs won't allow it. They think he used a modified board.

You get the impression that it isn't so much the score that matters to the Twin Galaxies crew -- it's that the challenger isn't one of them. He's an outsider. They can't even pronounce his name right. It's "wee-bee," two syllables, yet even after being corrected most of the refs continue to say the monosyllabic "weeb." It's a passive-aggressive attack that reminded me of the tendency of some right-wing politicians and commentators to refer to the "Democrat party."

Even as Wiebe flies to New Hampshire to break the record in person, the Twin Galaxies refs keep in touch with Billy Mitchell by phone, providing him nearly real-time updates. One of Mitchell's biggest sycophants, a guy named Brian Kuh, seems on the verge of tears as Wiebe closes in on the fabled "kill screen," which would make him the only person besides Mitchell ever to do so on Donkey Kong. Even so, Kuh can't help telling everybody in the arcade to come watch.

Just when you think King of Kong has gone about as far as it can go, the scheming and backstabbing suddenly escalate to an unbelievable degree. The film stops being a quirky look at an American subculture and becomes a baroque good vs. evil story. There's no question that some creative editing makes Billy Mitchell come off like Darth Vader and Steve Wiebe like the second coming of Jesus. We never see Mitchell with his kids, although presumably he has spawned a few. And on Wiebe's rejected Donkey Kong tape, he's interrupted by his crying son who needs his rear end wiped. Does Steve help? No -- he keeps going for the record. That's how you get ahead in this world.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Talk about last minute

Stranglehold delayed a week, making the week of August 27 fractionally less awesome.

But practically doubling September 3's fortunes!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Tom Chick on BioShock

Tom Chick's BioShock review is solid the whole way through, but his closing passage is absolutely killer:
Games like BioShock are what we need. They are what we deserve. This is one of the best examples of where we should go. It's silly to argue whether games are art, which doesn't matter one whit, when you can simply point to BioShock and say: "Games are this."
I couldn't agree more.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Open wide for some soccer

Obviously multiplayer is the draw for something like Mario Strikers Charged, but the people I played with last week certainly didn't seem any more enamored of it than I did.

I am aware that this review makes me sound like an old man yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off his lawn.

While you're exploring Rapture

You may emerge from your BioShock cocoon, as I did, to find that next week sees the release of the following games:

Any of those would have been a no-brainer to cover at any time during the year. Now? Well, Metroid is. Beyond that, I'm not sure. And it's only getting better from there.

Rock Band nails it

It's official. Rock Band will include a master recording of this song:



That's got to be one of the five best choices they could have made.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

I don't usually like to talk about games before the review goes up

If you have a 360, you should get BioShock.

If you don't have a 360, you should get one.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Why I won't download the BioShock demo

All I needed to hear was the invocation of System Shock 2, way back when BioShock was announced, to know that I didn't need to hear anything else. I've been under a self-imposed news blackout since then, and for the most part it's succeeded. I've seen a couple of screenshots, I know what a Big Daddy is, and I skimmed a Gamers with Jobs article about the game. That's it. I still don't know what the plot is, or what the game mechanics are like (well, okay -- I know it's an FPS).

Now that we're only a week away from the actual release, I figure there's no reason to try the demo. How is that different from screenshots or trailers? I'm told it's an "edited" version of the beginning of the game. If BioShock actually has the complex narrative and philosophical overtones that I'm expecting, then the demo won't shed light on any of that. It's a commercial, that's all. No thanks. I can wait.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Wii doesn't seem like a well-made machine

The Xbox 360 gets all the bad press, but I've encountered a couple of problems with the Wii now that make me wonder if Nintendo's cost-cutting measures didn't go too far. First there's the overheating problem with Connect24. Apparently if you leave it running for a long time -- months, say -- without ever actually powering the system fully, it can overheat and damage some of the hardware. Well, I didn't turn it on from April until July, and then when I did I was getting some graphical artifacting. So there's that. And just now, my B button got stuck in the down position and I'm not sure how to fix it. This is going to render just about everything unplayable.

In the meantime, my 360 works just fine!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Resident Evil 5 and racism

Okay, I'm going to wade in here. This may end up being a somewhat disjointed post, but I've been following the meme around the blogosphere and the story is the same anywhere it goes. As far as I can tell, the whole thing started with a post by Bonnie Ruberg on VillageVoice.com entitled "Resident Evil 5: White Man Shoots Black Zombies." It's a pretty interesting take -- in particular, Ruberg suggests that the parasites or T-virus of Resident Evil mythology could be playing out here as an allegory to the AIDS situation in Africa. That post was linked to by a blog called "Black Looks," which was then picked up on Kotaku. The Kotaku post currently has 671 comments and is still going strong.

That's the background. What's fascinating to me is the response from commenters. Readers of the Voice, Kotaku, and Black Looks are all united in their firm convictions that Resident Evil 5 is not racist. Most responses tend to fall in one or more of the following categories:
  • The enemies in Resident Evil 4 were white, so why wasn't anyone upset about that?

  • Lighten up, it's only a game.

  • There's no such thing as racism anymore;

  • But if there is, it's black people who are racists.

  • Women who complain about racism are racists themselves, or need to get laid.

  • It's so hard to be white these days.

I would back up each of those points with actual quotes, but it's too depressing to keep wading into those swamps. Seriously, just scan the Kotaku thread. I'm not cherry-picking here. The latent racism getting stirred up is really something to behold. Hardly anybody seems to see the contradiction.

Certainly, I didn't come away from the Resident Evil 5 trailer thinking it was racist. That's because I had the benefit of knowing the context. If you had to sum up the entire series in one sentence, a good one would be: "A powerful organization infects an innocent group of people with a virus that turns them into monsters." That's an over-simplification, but it's basically accurate across every Resident Evil game.

In particular, the fifth installment seems to borrow most heavily from Resident Evil 4. At the end of RE4, there's a short series of stills that shows the happy villagers going about their lives until the arrival of Lord Saddler. It is the first time we are meant to feel pity for them. It doesn't really make up for having mowed down about a thousand of them over the course of the game, but it does show that they are victims in their own way. I feel confident in predicting that the premise of RE5 will be much the same, and that before the game is over you'll find that Umbrella Corp. has been victimizing these people because they thought they could get away with it.

This is, of course, another example of video games wanting to have it both ways: you get the adrenaline-fueled thrill of combat and kill a ton of people, but it's okay because you actually saved all the people in the town afterward. RE4 isn't quite so explicit in that regard, but it's true that video games tend to resort to this kind of fascist mindset. Pick your cliché: "might makes right," "burn the village to save it," and so on.

It's the same across way too many games, and publishers keep getting to duck responsibility because they're only video games. It's ironic that people want Roger Ebert to take games as seriously as he takes movies, when they themselves do not take games as seriously as Roger Ebert takes movies. Read Ebert's review of Dirty Harry and try to imagine any video game reviewer on the face of the planet subjecting a game to that level of scrutiny. Did people tell Roger Ebert he was being overly sensitive? That he should relax and just enjoy the movie? No, they gave him a fucking Pulitzer Prize. If you agree that games should be part of the cultural conversation -- and I do -- then you don't get to draw up a list of exemptions every time somebody says something you don't like.

It's easy to see why someone unfamiliar with the Resident Evil canon would be taken aback by the trailer. What you see are mobs of frenzied black people swarming the good-looking, militaristic, and, oh yeah, white protagonist. Take that at face value. The solution, of course, would be to educate people who express concerns about what the series is really all about. It may not totally change their minds, but at least they might see your point of view.

Here's what I don't think works: telling someone that they're the racist, or that they need to lighten up. Or extrapolating one person's opinion to be the shared opinion of every black person in the world. Or saying that talking about race in games is distracting attention from the real issues. Or pretending that there's no such thing as racism. Anyone who's ever spent five minutes on Xbox Live is all too aware that racism in the gaming community is a legitimate issue (it's also a major reason why I spend as little time on XBL as possible).

In fact, this entire ugly episode has made it more clear than ever that games really are a mirror to our culture. A few comments about a game that doesn't come out for two years has sparked an extremely revealing conversation. There's no way of knowing to what degree the commentariat represents the prevailing attitude of gamers in general. Even so, the latent hatred and resentment that's been unleashed is really something to see. Only now it's cloaked in a sense of white victimhood. Racism hasn't really gone anywhere; it's just gotten better at hiding.

One can only hope that the light is what kills it.

Walter Raleigh Championship

The headline to this post is a shout-out to exactly one reader. Anyway, this week's review is of DiRT, a decent enough rally racing game that served to make me realize that I could never play another racing game again and I'd be okay with that. Okay, Burnout sequels excepted.

I am considering whether to weigh in on the Resident Evil 5 brouhaha. I suppose it is time for my semi-annual multi-thousand word rant, right?

The Heavenly Sword demo is weak

Powerful weak. I'm not sure how it could have been an entire gigabyte, because there's nothing to it. A brief, God of War-like button-pushing sequence, and then two, er, God of War-like melee battles. Then it just stops. Total play time is probably three minutes. The combat seemed like pure button mashing, although certainly it's hard to experiment in the brief time the demo gives you. All in all, I don't know why they bothered releasing this. Isn't the point of a demo to get people excited about a game?