Thursday, March 21, 2013

Gears of...wait for it....Bore

        There comes a point in every franchise’s lifespan were acceptance is key. It’s a measure of expectation. Should the fourth installment of a successful series be fundamentally different from any of the ones that came before it? We all act like we want our games to change, unable to comprehend how we’d be just as frustrated to see any major differences. This occurs when we have that yearning for something new and instead of expecting it in the form of a new IP, we apply that yearning to franchises that have already established themselves. That establishment serves as a foundation that is easier to improve upon than it is to create something completely new. For example, it's easier to imagine dual wielding swords in Halo than it is to forge a entirely new IP that you could get excited about. Sadly, the industry has more of the same and less of the new, with Bioshock being the exception. 
    It was half way through my time with Gears of War: Judgment that I discovered this. I had all these complaints about how cover to cover shooting wasn't enough anymore, questioning why the series never indulged a more tactical approach, but then it became clear. I don’t like Gears of War, so my expectations or desires don’t matter and they shouldn't. 
                Mired in a heap of illusory superiority, Gears of War: Judgment overvalues its fan's dedication and their ignoring of it's weaknesses relying too heavily series' foundations. Gears of War has been around for seven years now and has given birth to four titles, so forgive me when I say, a machine gun with a chainsaw attached to it just doesn't do it anymore. The cover system is no longer fun because at a certain point you realized it's just big guys slamming into cover and that's not really great. The "shotgun rules all" mentality while still fitting was annoying two games ago and it's still annoying here. Every encounter involves a shotgun. Every kid online has a shotgun. I don't feel properly equipped unless I have a shotgun. It's not the utilitarian sidearm, designed to be used in all situations, it's a fucking shotgun. Sure, there have been a few new weapons here and there, as well as an enemy or two that have been re-purposed in some way but it’s mostly a static procession.

                Playing Gears of War: Judgment is analogous to listening to the newest album of your favorite band, critics may condemn it as their worst yet, while others may praise it as their best, in either case you already like the band. My opinion on something I have a distaste for could never affect someone who likes this. Is it ever going to be that squad based tactical shooter I thought it could be? No and it shouldn't, because for most people who enjoy Gears of War, they enjoy it for the point blank, grind it out, humongous guys shooter it is. Far be it from me to ask People Can Fly to whistle a different tune. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

God of War: Descension more like...

Falling like a God discarded from Olympus. The franchise has once again resorted to repeating itself, in an effort to regurgitate whatever remained from a once satisfying meal. That’s what God of War: Ascension is, it’s a warm plate of leftovers vomited from the mouths of Santa Monica studios.

How is this for convoluted, the game takes place ten years before the original God of War; in terms of events, we’re given no touchstone that we might recognize and relate with. To add more confusion, when Ascension begins, we’re closer to the end rather than the beginning of the prequel story, and then as you get further in it, the story proceeds to flash back to events three weeks before and while doing so, frequently leaps back to the prequel present. Huh?
Also maddeningly, the game’s protagonists often use illusions to trick Kratos’ mind, forged from memory, thoughts that seek to induce him into submission and under their control. What’s odd is the game’s cut scenes don’t try to trick the player; they only seek to confuse its main character. The problem is we know it’s not real; we know better that when murdering mythical elephant brutes then walking through a doorway, it’s somewhat strange to find ourselves magically home with our wife and daughter, who we know to be dead. It’s frustrating to watch because you aren’t really sure how you’re supposed to feel. For instance, at some point each time, Kratos himself realizes and it feels as though we’re supposed to say “whaaaa?” Instead we tilt our heads and struggle to understand what the game was trying to show us.
The series has never been known for having a clear plot but it has been known for telling an interesting story. Ascension as far as story goes is not interesting, you’re never quite sure what Kratos is attempting and you never really care, which sums up the experience kindly.
Just as the series has never been known for clarity, it has been for addictively brutal combat. It seems the years have caught up to the franchise, no longer innovative or savvy, Ascension feels more like God of War 3 DLC than a stand-alone release. It doesn’t help that the genre has mined and striped God of War of every mechanic it ever instituted, then played it to death, so that now, doing things like controlling a large enemy to fight mobs doesn’t feel fresh anymore. True to series form however, the beginning still has that slow unsatisfying grind that makes you question whether or not you’re having any fun. Eventually, you find a groove, and the game inexplicably becomes tolerable.
No other series of games repeats itself like God of War. As I was playing I decided to list many of the franchise’s tired staples.
·         Kratos can deftly control the nervous system of almost any creature with his blade.
·         Every mythical creature must have breasts and they have to be fully exposed.
·         Kratos’ blades of chaos aren’t subject to any real world property of size or cutting ability.
·         Every large structure is always a massive living creature that you must fight.
·         There is always a large puzzle in the background you are never quite sure you’re solving.
·         The regret Kratos has for spilling innocent blood is voiced at some point; even though he spends a large portion of the game watching several innocents get slaughtered.
·         A God defying brutal warrior who has the time and patience to do this many puzzles.

Like any dead tree that falls in the woods, you can spot its age, the series has begun to decay, God of War 3 was a boring rehashing of former greatness. God of War: Ascension has fallen victim to the same failures, never overly interesting and never particularly fun, there isn’t an experience to have. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Somewhere Beyond the Sea

        The world of Bioshock, an idealist, a deceptive business man and a puppet turned wildcard. All

three sunk beneath the waves, lost in a decaying utopia known as Rapture. Much like Jack, I had spent a

few years away and felt obligated by the upcoming release of Bioshock Infinite to return. I know beyond

a doubt, Bioshock is an absolute champion of atmosphere. It contains the greatest and most complex

grouping of concept, characters, universe, and story that has ever existed in the world of video games.

            Andrew Ryan wasn’t a king, a dictator or president. He was a man, who fervently believed every

man is entitled to full expression and zero limits. It was for this reason alone, he built Rapture. “A city

where the artist would not fear the censor; where the scientist would not be bound by petty 

morality; where the great would not be constrained by the small!” A place where free thinkers were

able to pursue taboo subjects or experiment with the limits of humanity was the only kind of place boundaries

were really tested. When given absolute freedom, those bound by self-reliance will find anything given

from someone else as a favor. Understanding the importance of such favors, the first thing the people of

Rapture did was attempt to control one another. Unaware of the dependence they had forged.

            Perhaps the absolute antithesis to Andrew Ryan’s core belief came in the form of a phrase,

“Would you kindly?” It’s a simple phrase; it isn’t read from an ancient tome or spoke in some forgotten

language. It’s a gamble, each time a stranger asks another for a favor, he’s rolling the dice. Hoping you

might be so inclined to help him. Andrew Ryan did not believe in favors or manipulation of his fellow

man, however, Frank Fontaine did.

            Fontaine was a business man; he didn’t come to Rapture interested in the flowering of

expression but rather, the ditch of exploitation. A city full of weak-armed artists and scientists spaced

out from their limitless thoughts were still like those “capitalist pigs” of America; consumers. When

the denizens of Rapture scoffed at Ryan Industries’ power, Fontaine, like any good businessman,

saw a vacuum and filled it by creating Atlas, the sigil, the rallying cry of the “oppressed”. Atlas was

whatever the market needed him to be and Fontaine knew better than any other inhabitant, the power

conformity carried in any sales pitch. Both Ryan and Fontaine were creators. Ryan had a concept and

Fontaine had a con.

            That we play as a sick creation of both men should come as no surprise. Sensing the inevitable

civil war, Fontaine saw you, Jack as a possible back up plan. Upon learning of Ryan’s illegitimate

fathering of Jack, he enlisted the help of Doctors Without Boundaries: Suchong and Tenebaum with the

ultimate plan of creating a sleeper agent. The irony here being that Ryan’s death was brought on by an

environment he chose to create. Only in Rapture would it not be morally objectionable to genetically

alter and brainwash a child. We may have had Ryan’s genes but we served at the hands of our master

Fontaine. With the words, “Would you kindly?” we were rendered a slave. Jack was sent to surface

in 1958 and returned only two years later to find bathyspheres previous locked, now open with only

Andrew Ryan’s will to stop him.

            When Jack arrived he found a once expressive city mired in silence, its halls vacant, its shops

closed and its remaining citizens irreparably changed. Caught in a tug of war between two symbols of

men, one offered explanation; Atlas and the other promised death; Ryan. Naturally Jack sided with

Atlas. Ryan and Fontaine were not enemies and I believe that Ryan did not see Fontaine as ideologically

wrong. Fontaine’s actions were merely a product of Rapture’s environment.

            Rapture had failed, Andrew Ryan knew this well. However, it was his opinion that failing through

freedom was barely a failure at all. If the by-product of individuality was nothing more than a pool of

blood then so be it. At least no one had told them or enforced Rapture become this way. It was a pure

evolution of what Ryan’s utopia allowed.

            A little over halfway through Bioshock, we come face to face with the man, the myth and the

legend, Andrew Ryan. He tells his son, “A man acts, a slave obeys.” This man may have had answers

but more importantly he had questions, something unfamiliar to Jack, who mainly did as he was told.

Powerless to stop himself, Jack killed Andrew Ryan. Each time Jack raised his cudgel; Ryan came back

and said it once more. Unlike Jack, Andrew Ryan chose, unwilling to become a slave to any other’s

will. With this, Rapture was dead. Ryan was its life force and despite the cities’ fall to decay, his presence

allowed the idea to remain alive. It’s somewhat disheartening to know the moment Jack finally had

questions, the man who had them lay dead by his hand.

            Imagine the disappointment Andrew Ryan must have endured escaping Russia, arriving in

America, a place he believed a man would be granted real freedom, then discovering how democracy

only appeared free. Its citizens brainwashed into believing what their nation offered was the same

as liberty. As if a man falling from a high perch, feeling the wind against his face was akin to another

merely sticking his head out a window. Despite this he urged onward, believing if you want something

done right, you must do it yourself and he did. Thus Rapture was born. His exposure to the colossal

failure of the civilized government birthed in him the idea of a city beyond the sea. Far from the clutches

of those who believe they have the right to constrict the lawful pursuits of man. He had succeeded

and for twenty years, he lived without restriction. The tail end of such a time produced the largest

disappointment of Andrew Ryan’s life, you. After all, what could be more discouraging to a man like

Ryan than realizing your killer was just another mindless drone. “I came to this place to build the

impossible; you came to rob what you could never build. A Hun, gaping at the gates of Rome.

            Rapture was designed as a paradise for those seeking to escape the parasites. In a way, every video

game is similarly created to serve as a safe haven from the harshness of reality, a break from the monotonous

routines of our everyday life. The problem that often occurs with any escape from reality is logic, the walls

start to crack. Water begins springing from each gaping hole, eventually forming a crushing wave of sense

that tends to break any experience down. It’s hard not to notice by the eighth time we’re sent to activate

some switch, we’re already drowning. How many games shove poorly structured characters or plot front

and center solely to serve as a more inspiring facilitation of a list of objectives? Is it a coincidence that

Atlas himself is a construct, something designed to convince us we're playing a hero’s tale. The same

tale he had the citizens of Rapture believing. Ryan was the promise of all games and Fontaine was the

designer of one. It took being fed a fake narrative to expose us to how blind we've been. Eyes long shut,

now opened to the world around us. Helping Atlas was a metaphor for the stale and undeserving stories

we're told in video games, while Andrew Ryan and his belief, his way of life was the true heart and soul

of Rapture and therefore Bioshock. Ryan, a man who believed the world shouldn't be made for everyone’s

use but for those who know what to do with it. “On the surface, I once bought a forest. The parasites

claimed it belonged to God, and demanded I establish a public park there. Why? So the rabble 

could stand slack-jawed under the canopy and pretend that it was paradise earned. When 

Congress moved  to nationalize my forest, I burnt it to the ground. God did not plant the seeds of 

this Arcadia; I did.

             All of this culminating in something beyond a game, Bioshock is a work of art and like any

piece of art, further meditation will expose the most subtle of details. The kind of details that have us

suspending our disbelief for just a little bit longer. The developers of Bioshock, much like many of the

free thinkers who came to Rapture, found an outlet for their expression.

             Rapture was a drowning city, too stubborn to resuscitate, she sunk deep and took the illusion

of freedom with her. Ryan just like the captain of any worthy vessel chose to go down with her. That’s

the cost of liberty, true liberty that is, it requires an unwillingness to relinquish, an utterly insane

commitment to a cause, something that you must believe so whole heartily that even the threat of death

wouldn't shake you.

             My experience with Rapture has got me thinking, I’d like to get away for a while, a place among

the clouds sure sounds nice.

Edited by Jacob Houston

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Reboot Successful

She raids tombs....
Straight out of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins playbook, the latest iteration of Tomb Raider comes off gritty and far more believable. Most importantly it works as a game, no longer just puzzle after puzzle; it spends time making game play fun and rewarding. Its feels kind of like Lara Croft is raiding tombs for the first time….again. From the ashes of the failed franchise, a polished phoenix has risen. While unoriginal, Tomb Raider combines many of the best elements from triple A titles like, Assassin’s Creed, Uncharted and Far Cry 3.
It boasts a wonderfully open world to explore with plenty of reasons to do so. Collectibles breed achievements in most games and the same applies for Tomb Raider as well; however it’s more worth your while to earn achievements and collect loot at the same time. Found a relic? How about 500 experience points? Sounds great, friend. The system for discovering said collectibles is incredibly convenient, whenever you enter a new area, you tap left bumper, it scans and detects nearby loot. Sometimes these rewards are protected by a barrier that requires a game mechanic you haven’t acquired yet. If that’s the case, the icon for the document or GPS cache you’re looking for has a lock symbol over it, informing you not to stress when you are unable to obtain it.
She's looking down...Why is she looking down?!
Not only do you find yourself earning XP, you also discover salvage, which serves as an in-game currency that can be used to upgrade and modify all of your weapons, all the usual suspects are present, explosive arrows, sights and silencers. These are pretty stereotypical, nevertheless extremely effective. At one point some thugs were using a friend for ransom, I was forced to drop my weapons. When the kidnapper insisted I kick them off the edge, I was actually fearful I might lose my upgrades. Luckily, my friend freed himself and dispatched them on his own.
Perfect timing....
It’s surprising the relationship that is forged with Lara as a character; she’s attractive yet never objectified by it. Always capable, never the sex icon she was in the previous series. Learning how to survive she endures a lot and it shows. Starting cleanly clothed with her hair in the right place, we watch as her outfit is soaked in sweat, nearly torn apart and her hair a hot mess. There are some brutally dark moments, waking up upside down in a creepy cult’s hidden cave or later when Lara is swimming through a river of blood are among them. Slowly but surely, Ms. Croft forms a callous in the place where her sensitivity for violence once was.
The game often gives Lara the opportunity to sneak through, murdering unsuspecting foes with her trusty climbing axe while silently discarding those who stand just out of her reach with quick arrows. It’s simple yet satisfying and handled with a joy fueled ease. As for when enemies are aware of your presence, the game can be as inventive as you like. The encounters are brimming with variety; it felt like I was putting on a show. In one of my favorite encounters, I bowed two unsuspecting island thugs, ran in, and impaled one with my axe. Quickly two more of them shouted obscenities whilst barreling towards me with their crude machetes. In a moment of sheer panic, I scrambled, and with my hand on the ground I threw some dirt into the first’s face. With him temporarily inactive, I pulled out my shotgun and blasted the second. Still stunned from the blindness dirt in your face causes, I slammed a rock against the first’s head. Room cleared, I reloaded and combed their pockets for loot.
That familiar crashing feeling....
The story of tomb Raider is not important, the character is. It serves as a vehicle to fall in love with Lara Croft again, even if there was never anything more than sexy figure and a pair of desert eagles to begin with. You could be underwhelmed with the narrative and while you aren’t wrong, you’re slightly missing the point, that point being, Lara Croft is back.
The game is unoriginal, but god dammit is it fun. With the series reinvigorated from spirited changes to game play, I’m happy to say, I’m looking forward to Lara Croft’s next adventure. Maybe next time she’ll bother to bring a coat.