Archive for the ‘Games’ Category.

A cornucopia of games

There was a window of time at the end of last year when it seemed like every game that came out was a new classic. So its happened that I’ve had a chance to play some of them.
Bioshock – This was the game that showed that I, officially, needed better hardware. Bioshock was a game I had been eager to play for months, and seeing the specs needed gave me pause, as it had been at least two years since I last updated by equipment. Unfortunately when the game was released, it wouldn’t run on my computer: it wouldn’t even render the models! So after a short shopping trip to NewEgg I had tricked out the computer with new parts, and Bioshock ran like a champ.
The game’s creator has repeatedly stated that he calls Bioshock a first-person shooter just to put it in a category, and that it is much more than that. Indeed, the game, while still an entertaining shooter, has conspicuous elements of Role Playing modifying and leveling and the story and character development of an adventure game. Bioshock is the story of a man (you) in the mid 1960’s, whose plane has crashed into the Atlantic next to a mysterious lighthouse peering over the surface. The lighthouse is a submarine station leading the player to the undersea city of Rapture, the vision of a man named Andrew Ryan, who wanted a secluded utopia for artists, scientists, and thinkers to create free from the constrains of modern society. The city is an art-deco wonder, yet it is crumbling, its inhabitants missing. The grand experiment of Rapture has gone wrong, when genetic enhancements called Plasmids created internal strife, and the overly mutated survivors, called Splicers, roam the dark and leaking city looking for prey. And amongst them are the Little Sisters, strange, ghoul-like children that feast on the dead for their Adam, the “power source” of Plasmids that acts like “mana” in traditional RPGs. They are protected by the Big Daddies, lumbering, groaning monstrosities in metal diving suits.
The story follows your character as he is led through Rapture by a man named Atlas, a resistance fighter against Ryan and his police state-like measures. You enhance yourself through plasmids, fight and defeat the splicers, and square off against the Big Daddies, which are like mini-boss fights. It is common first-person shooter territory, with the strategic element of figuring out which enhancements to employ in a given situation.
The world of Rapture is sublimely designed, with its constant dark, moody art-deco art and constant wet, with water dripping, pouring, and pooling. Sound design is good too, with creepy effects and effective voice acting. In addition the old fashioned music adds to the general creepiness. It is the unfolding story of the rise and fall of Rapture (and your place in the story) that is the most enjoyable aspect – you want to press on to find out what really happened there. There is some nice philosophical undertones (based on the writings on Ayn Rand, of whom I am not familiar) and a nice twist near the end. The game also employs a bit of moral choice: you can “cure” the Little Sisters once you defeat a Big Daddy for only a small amount of Adam (and possibly some additional items), or you can kill them to get a huge amount of Adam. The choice does affect the storyline somewhat (and triggers one of two endings), and even knowing that its only a game, I couldn’t bring myself to follow the killing route (being a relatively new father might have something to do with it).
Although the steep system requirements may be an obsticle, and an ending that may be a bit too “console” for some PC gamers, Bioshock has been one of the best game expericences I’ve had in recent years.

Half-Life: The Orange Box – If Valve released just Half-Life 2 Episode 2 for the amount they charged, it would have been a decent deal. But instead they also included the rest of the Half-Life 2 canon, PLUS the single player game Portal, PLUS the multiplayer Team Fortress 2. With these additions, it was the single best purchase of the year. Let’s look at what we got:
HL2: Ep. 2 picks up the story of Gordon Freeman, as he and Alyx Vance have escaped City 17 after the destruction of the Citadel. What makes this episode distinctive is the huge outdoor environments, a contrast to Ep. 1, which took place in many of the same environs as HL2. Travelling through the wooded countryside gives this game a new feel, as does the location settings you encounter, such as a mine shaft that leads to an underground antlion den, and a nuclear missle silo serving as a remote research lab for the human resistance forces. The game features new creatures, such as spitting antlions and a new, smaller walker called the Hunter that can chase you inside buildings. The story continues to push forward, but new questions have been raised without fully answering others, so we’ll need to wait for Episode 3. The fighting is intense and fun (especially using the gravity gun), and the final battle is a brutal “Alamo” fight that keeps you moving.
Portal started life as a mod for HL2 that Valve adopted and fleshed out into a stand alone game. The game is not much more than a series of puzzles that are solved through the use of a portal device, a gun that lets you shoot an entrance portal into one surface, and an exit portal into another. This simple mechanic allows you to find creative ways to reach an objective. Using the portal gun is a blast, and the ability to “fling” yourself by placing an exit high on a wall, then jumping off a height into an entrance hole to exit at the same momentum as the fall is exhilirating. But this fun gameplay is wrapped by a fun story: You are a subject at Aperture labs, and the disembodied voice and wall mounted surveillance cameras of GlaDOS, the labs’ computer, guides you through a sterile, abstract environment using the portal gun. The script and voice acting is very fun, with lots of style and humorous moments. And as you progress in your “experiment”, a more sinister plot development begins to emerge, and by the last “experiment”, you escape into the hidden behind the scenes realm of the laboratory, with the pervasive computer becoming more insane (yet still funny) as you move to the climax. The plot is tied back into the world of Half-Life (and a reference to Portal’s Aperture labs is in Ep. 2), so it will be interesting to see if these two worlds merge. Although short, the game comes with additional Challenge levels to exercise your brain, and a new goal emerges to see how fast you can complete the game (search YouTube for video of a gamer completing Portal in 18 minutes!) Get this game and discover why the cake is a lie.
Team Fortress 2 is the long awaited sequel to Team Fortress, one of the early online team shooters. The game had endured a long rumor filled development time, and emerged as something no one had expected. The game has eschewed the realistic look they began pursuing for an exaggeraed, caricatured art style. This is a brilliant change that emphasizes quick recognition, critical in a fast-paced game. It also infuses the game with a sense of fun which seems lacking from the competitive nature of team-based shooters. Unfortunately I haven’t played online yet (though I did play Team Fortress Classic, built on the original Half-Life engine back in the day), due to my time commitments and general reluctance to be called “teh sux” because I don’t play shooters 5 hours a day. TF2’s looser style, though, seems to invite a more relaxed attitude to games, so I hope to try it soon.

Crysis is considered the “next-gen” of graphics engines, and the first big name to utilized DirectX 10. But even using Windows XP and DX9, the graphics are awe inspiring. It evokes the tropical setting of this first-person shooter with almost photo-realism, even on the modest settings I have used. The plot is typical sci-fi shooter fare, feeling akin to the movie Predator, where a military rescue leads to an alien invasion plot. You are equipped with a nano-suit, which allows you to enhance your abilities to match you situation, such as cloaking, super strength (for hand-to-hand or high jumping), to speed bursts to help you escape trouble. The story starts with you and your squad (with a typical multi cultured makeup: thanks to Aliens all military squads must have a wise but crusty sergeant, one guy who’s kinda bonkers, and one panicky guy) trying to spring captured scientists from North Korean troops, but you discover an alien presence massacring everything. I am still slogging through this game, but the ability to choose your approach to situations is neat. If you have the rig for it, Crysis is a feast for the eyes.

Sam and Max is probably the best success story for “episodic gaming”. For those of you who enjoyed Sam and Max Hit the Road, the classic adventure game from LucasArts, the new, 3D rendered adventures of the canine detective and his hyperkinetic rabbity thing from TellTale and Gametap arrive every month or so. Season 1 was a six episode series of interrelated stories (each of which can stand on its own), and Season 2 began last month. The games do not break any gameplay ground, being a more modern reincarnation of classic point-and-click adventures, but that’s not the point. The games are great puzzle games, making you think both logically and laterally for solutions. And the writing, voice acting, and artwork are very, very funny: There were several moments in the first season that I found myself laughing out loud. The series has developed many recurring characters, and plotlines arc from one episode (and season) to another. Sam and Max can be played as part of a Gametap subscription (which also provides a wealth of classic and near modern games in its library) or as stand alone downloads from TellTale. It’s nice to have a new adventure to look forward to each month!

I’ve also been playing Super Mario Galaxy for the Wii, as well as the Simpsons Game. I am also looking forward to the next big release coming down the pike, Spore, the next product from SimCity and The Sims creator Will Wright.