Category Archives: PC

BioShock Infinite

Holder

“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth”

Down the block and around the corner from here there’s a collection of buildings with the words “Center for the Medical Arts” emblazoned on a beige, waist-high sign in the parking lot. The Center for the Medical Arts contains the usual collection of medical-type establishments which no doubt provide the finest in medical-type care to those in medical-type need. From the size of the place, I’d wager that hundreds of professionals show up every morning and save gallons of lives; indeed, I have no problem with the Center itself, as they’re probably doing a great job in there. My simmering beef is with the sign. Medical arts? No thanks, Pablo; the last thing I want to discover when I go to the proctologist is that he’s just entered his Blue Period.

I suspect it’s worded that way because some marketing jackass felt that the word “art” is more accessible to a general public that is excited by art, frightened by science, and unwilling to draw a distinction between the two; after all, a lot of people think they understand art, but very few people give half a hammered eukaryote about science, and some hold it in active contempt. Here’s a very broad crash course for those who’ve never learned that words — and, as such, ideas — are not so many meaningless puffs of air to be blown about at their whim and subjective assertion; art makes life enjoyable, science makes life possible. (Though not everything that makes life enjoyable can be called art. Close to it, maybe, but not quite.)

And Danced the Skies

The debate about whether video games can be considered art is as ridiculous the debate between the merits of Coke vs. Pepsi, great taste vs. less filling, and David Lee vs. Sammy; the only people who claim that games cannot possibly be art are those who have not identified their standards regarding the definition of art, which I shall do forthwith:

Art = Applied Science (“hey, a burnt pointy stick!”) + Speculative Thought (“hmm, I think…bison.”) x Universally Applicable Abstraction (“the bison is such an integral aspect of the Paleolithic Experience that I, Thak Remington, shall strive to recreate one or several on that wall”). That’s where the debate should end, but it doesn’t; people get hung up on the “is it or isn’t it” thing when they don’t know what it is that they’re trying to define.

"I've chased the shouting wind along..."

“On laughter-silvered wings”

As an example, I’ve spent more than three hundred hours in Terraria over the course of the last year or so. It’s a spectacular game, full of everything that makes me salivate like one of Ivan’s bitches, but it’s not art by any selective definition of the word because it lacks that one crucial attribute, which is the universally applicable abstraction. Similar to a theme, the universally applicable abstraction is the thing that would make Gurk Warhol stroll into Thak Remington’s digs three generations later and exclaim, “by Jove, the bison is a fine and integral aspect of the Paleolithic Experience!” Terraria is an immense collection of very satisfying mechanics, but it does not have the elusive UAA, and that’s just fine with me; the classification of a game as “art” or “not-art” has no bearing on my enjoyment of it. Sometimes it’s fun just to dig up dirt and chop monsters into tiny bits. Or get your ass kicked over and over and yet over again by a large, laser-spitting column of ambulatory spooge.

When a video game uses artistic elements such as an appealing visual style, well-drawn textures, emotional music, and a cinematic presentation without stating a universally applicable abstraction, it is not art. It doesn’t matter how pretty it is, or how satisfying its gameplay is, or how fun it is; a well-wrought skill — like painting or writing — devoid of a deeper connection to some specific aspect of what it means to be alive, can produce a good book, or a beautiful painting, or even a video game that is a blast to play, but which cannot be art. Why? Because beauty alone is not sufficient to redeem the intellectually or emotionally mundane.

"Up the long, delirious, burning blue..."

“High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there…”

The fact that BioShock Infinite is a beautiful game is not the cause of its artistic merit. Neither is the fact that BioShock Infinite is fun to play, or that it improves on the original in every facet of its design, from its magic system (Vigors) to its combat, to its companion character. BioShock Infinite is not art because it allows you to make moral choices throughout the course of the story, or because it drops you into the action and then gets the holy blessed wonderful hell out of your way, without using any of the increasingly conventional button-mashing or intrusive cutscenes that remove you from the gameplay and bug the ever-lovin’ pee out of you. And me.

In the case of BioShock Infinite, as in the case with film, it is the story that elevates it into the realm of art; BioShock Infinite employs a masterful technical skill in telling a deep and personal tale that transcends the standard save-the-world, stride-into-the-sunset melodrama found in most games; indeed, it makes saving the world an incidental, secondary concern to the survival of the two characters about whom you come to care deeply over the course of the game — Elizabeth, the companion, and Booker, the man sent to rescue her from the floating city of Columbia. It tells a story of redemption, forgiveness, courage, and determination, without once holding any of these virtues in contempt by mocking them with exaggeration, or sneering at them through the use of undercutting humor. As a result, it’s a game that takes itself, and you, very seriously, and it does so without out an ounce of pretension (which, as everyone knows, is worth a pound of curare).

The Long, Delirious, Burning Blue

"Put out my hand, and touched the face of God"

“I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace”

It’s easy to praise a game to the bicuspids and raise expectations beyond an attainable threshold, so for the sake of parity I’ll outline some of the things that BioShock Infinite does quite horribly:

It does not stop the gameplay to show you every new enemy that you encounter, which would allow you to rest your hands, and maybe run off to the kitchen for a bag of Cool Ranch Flavored Doritos and a bottle of Code Red.

It lets you see where you’re going at all times. Every once in a while it would be nice to go completely fucking blind and then die, you know?

It doesn’t let you waggle the controller to reload your weapon. What is this, 1999?

It does not use quicktime events, which add to the verisimilitude of a game by making you as tired as the player character looks.

You can’t turn off the Vita Chambe…oh, wait. Never mind.

It tells its story primarily through audio logs and in-game events, which prevents you from honing your reading skills while playing.

The main character is named Booger Booker, but there are no books in the game. This is what’s known in the vernacular of the American Consumer as a ripoff.  (See above.)

Upon your character’s death, you don’t get to replay the entire level as punishment for your inadequacy as a gamer. This means that you’re actually getting much less game than you think, because you’re not constantly repeating sections that you’ve already cleared. (Remember when a game would punch you in the gonads when you failed? Good times…) Again, see above: ripoff.

Where Never Lark or Even Eagle Flew

It’s a rare occasion that I finish a game, then start right back over from the beginning to find everything that I missed the first time through, but that’s exactly what I did with BioShock Infinite — I’m glad to admit that it’s not the game that I thought it would be, which was “more of the same, only less of it.”

Instead, and in every aspect of consideration, BioShock Infinite is more of the same, plus so very much more.

(All captions and section titles from “High Flight,” by John Gillespie McGee, Jr.)
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Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Brownish Area. With Points.

“Time for me to take off my receptionist’s skirt and put on my Barbra Streisand-in-the-Prince-of-Tides ass-masking therapist’s pantsuit.”

It’s easy to be glib. To criticize. To mock. That’s why there are so many more commentators in the world than there are producers; any number of morons can pick up a Crayola and a roll of Charmin and squat over someone else’s work, cowering behind the immunity of the non-creator, which (they think) somehow shields them from reciprocal criticism with the passive-aggressive notion that their “work” lies beyond the measure of critical analysis.

“Pot? Hi, this is Kettle. How you doin’?”

Once I recognized that the defining attribute of most critics was abject cowardice, I stopped holding commentary as my creative standard and stopped doing reviews. Things have been pretty quiet around here lately, but I sleep much better, so the ensuing silence suits me just fine.

There are a few issues, though, which must be made right.

I’ve Made a Huge Mistake

Three years ago I wrote about the heretical news that Deus Ex 3, as it was then known, was purported to have regenerating health. In typical smarmy commentator fashion, I was convinced that this would ruin the experience of the original game, and that any developer who employed such mechanics sought only to maximize profits at the expense of art, and so forth, ad nauseam. I implied that it was a cowardly, derivative, marketing-based decision that had no place in a game that would call itself an RPG, much less a game that would sell itself as the latest progeny of the venerated Deus Ex lineage.

After playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution almost exclusively for the past four months, it’s a matter of justice that compels me to publicly admit (as I publicly criticized these design decisions three years ago in my condescending rant) that Eidos Montréal have spoon-fed me my own ass. With club sauce.

When I say that Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the best game I’ve played in the last ten years, keep in mind that I do not make such proclamations lightly. I liked it more than BioShock, more than Fallout 3, more than The Elder Scrolls III and IV, Morrowind and Oblivion, respectively. I liked it more than Skyrim, and more than Mass Effect and its sequel, and finally, inevitably, I liked it more than Deus Ex.

If I gave half a hammered turd about maintaining a readership, this is the part where I’d follow such blasphemy with much bowing and scraping while I begged you to keep reading, to hear me out and keep an open mind, as I attempted to justify my statements with a bunch of circuitous rationalizations and subjective assertions. Astute readers will know to expect a full repeal of the Patriot Act before this happens, but everyone, including fellow die-hard Deus Ex aficionados, should shoulder on for an explanation. Or don’t. The choice is, of course, all yours.

“I’m a MON-STERRRR!”

The effectiveness of the mechanics in Deus Ex (that is, the original game) can essentially be reduced to an exercise in inventory and/or skills management. The potency of the skills in which you invest your experience points depends largely upon the number of inventory items available for said skills; medicine is useless without medkits, electronics is useless without multitools, lockpicking is useless without lockpicks, and so forth, with the lone exceptions being pathfinding skills such as swimming and computers.  As such, the core mechanics rely not so much on the ability of the player, but on the foresight of the developer in including a sufficient number of resources to cover all play styles.

This is not the case with Human Revolution, as all but one augmentation (Typhoon) can be used without a corresponding element of inventory management. For example: Pumping all available skill points into one of the four available hacking augmentations will never result in the player having wasted these skill points because of a lack of resources. Because of this, the reins of authorship are handed more completely to the player than in either of the preceding Deus Ex games, and the experience of player expression becomes much richer for it. In Human Revolution, there are no moments of, “I am the StealthMaster, yet I’m finding it difficult to display my clandestine virtuosity because the Gods in the Machine have not provided me with sufficient resources,” or, “I ran out of medkits and now I’m stuck,” both of which frequently reared their disfigured craniums in the first two games.

Another area in which Human Revolution shines brighter than its progenitor is in the matter of feedback. Deus Ex rewarded the player with skill points, which could be used to upgrade ten various skills, but it did so primarily by means of story progression and location encounters, not through player skill, as is the case with Human Revolution. For example: If you pop some bozo in the head in Human Revolution you get twice as many experience points as you would if you’d simply Swiss cheesed his ass from across the room. Additionally, if you take someone down by non-lethal means, you get four or five times as many experience points, depending on the method; the stun gun and tranq darts net you 40 points, while hand-to-hand takedowns are worth 50.

Additionally, if you ghost your way between objectives, alerting no one and setting off no alarms, a progression-based skill bonus of 750 points awaits you. So regardless of the way you play, your skill is rewarded within the context of the gameplay. This is the essence of good design, and represents the perfect integration of the human player’s skill and the player-character’s skill; there is never any barrier placed between your ability (which, as a gamer, you’ve probably been developing far longer than you’ve been developing any other entertainment-oriented motor skills) and your success in the game. Shots do not magically and wildly careen in any direction as they leave the barrel of your gun, in spite of your steady aim with the mouse, simply because the player-character’s skill with a pistol is shit. (Fallout 3, stop it!) The augmentations and upgrades in Human Revolution exist to, ironically enough, augment your own hard-won skills as a player, not to artificially hinder them in order to create the illusion of character development and progression. This means that you won’t see your sights wavering back and forth as you try to snipe somebody from fifty miles away, either; if you’re good enough, he’s eating lead, and that’s the end of it.

Even If It Means Me Taking a Chubby…

And on the matter of regenerating health, well, I’m just going to have to suck it up on that one. I was wrong. Keeping the player’s progression through the game entirely dependent on the developer’s foresight in including sufficient medpacks is a shitty way to ask someone to spend their time, after they’ve already spent their unrefundable money on your game. Expecting them to reload a previous save and replay a large portion of their progress just so that they can continue to receive the full value of their expense might have been acceptable in June of 2000, but today it’s just a shortcut to obscurity; there’s too much other shit out there to risk losing people (their attention, not necessarily their money) to the sound-bite gaming experience of iOS, or even something as relatively accessible as Minecraft. Gaming has become so ubiquitous that developers who stand on decades-old design principles, who do not change their philosophy to reflect the metaphysical realities of today’s industry, are (as my dear old grandmother used to say) fuckin’ suicidal.

Perhaps the most eloquent testimony for Human Revolution’s respect for the player can be found in the fact that I was able to complete a non-lethal play-through on the highest difficulty without once using a weapon or grenade. (All bosses were defeated using the Typhoon, everyone else got the Instant Takedown treatment.) When a game thinks highly enough of you to permit your ability to inform the adventure, satisfying itself with the simple, elegant augmentation of your skill, it becomes the very definition of the player-authored experience.

The essential design principle of Deus Ex wasn’t that you could heal yourself from the player-character’s inventory with the use of medkits, but that you, the human player, lived and died by your own decisions. This design concept has been preserved, respected, amplified, and improved in Human Revolution, but Eidos Montréal have taken care to never invalidate the player’s ability by subjugating it to their design. Instead, game design and player skill are two seamlessly fused components of the same glorious machine, so that the developer-player relationship is truly collaborative, rather than adversarial, for the first time in the series.

If this is the benchmark that Eidos Montréal have set for themselves, I’ll gladly own up to being giant-sized commentating blowhard every time I spend $60 for one of their games, which will be often. Deus Ex: Human Revolution has redefined the standards of what I expect from a game; never have I been so glad to have been proven so unequivocally wrong.

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TGS Retro: Deus Ex Invisible War (PC, Xbox)

deusex-jIt’s probably a bit misleading on a blog called “This Game Sucks” to review a five-year-old game that doesn’t suck at all, but temporarily rebranding the joint “This Game Was Well-Reviewed By Critics But Largely Shunned By Fanboy Dicks” would be impractical. Tempting, but still impractical.

Upon its release on December 3, 2003, Deus Ex: Invisible War had some crazy-ass venti-sized shoes to fill. Coming out on the heels of what many still consider to be the best PC game of all time must have been like following the Beatles on Ed Sullivan; that luckless magician could have juggled chainsaws and solved quadratic equations while playing “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” on an ass-clenched kazoo and it wouldn’t have made any difference; at that point, nobody was paying attention anymore. Similarly, Invisible War could have presented Michio Kaku with a tidily giftwrapped, ready-for-prime-time Theory of Everything while lovingly polishing John Malkovich’s head to a shimmering luster, yet flaming idiots across the globe still would have derided it for being dumbed-down and “consolized.”

One of the things that hurt Invisible War wasn’t that it was “dumbed-down;” it was actually a very intelligent game that dealt with sophisticated themes and sub-themes, such as the appropriate roles of government and religion, dependency on and rejection of technology across varying socio-economic strata, and the manipulation of fear as a catalyst for corporate profit. Timeless stuff, to be sure, but where Invisible War floundered most was with its inevitable comparison to its older sibling.

Deus Ex was a masterful game in part because it contained multiple elements that reinforced some of the most fundamental mechanics of play and survival known to humanity (collection, customization, and feedback). The spatial inventory was a terrific way to peruse and interact with everything you’d collected throughout your time in the game world, and the distribution of goal-based skill points was helpful in creating a system of feedback (points awarded) and reward (improved skills), along with enriching the personal stake that each player had in the game by allowing the customization of skills and abilities.

Who do I gotta fuck to get a waffle?

Who do I gotta fuck to get a waffle?

The omission of the skill points and the limited upgradeability of the nanoaugs (three levels of upgrade in IW, four in DX), coupled with the limited upgradeability of the weapons (only two upgrade slots available for each), is largely what spoiled Invisible War for those who’d waited three-plus years for its release; the illusion of a player-driven experience was severely hampered — if not altogether eliminated — by the many limitations and restrictions on the choices that were available for solving problems. Consolidating the lockpicks and the multitools into a single, multi-function device is an example of how something can make sense from a design perspective (eliminating seemingly redundant mechanics), yet at the same time work against you by limiting the scope of the player’s involvement in the game’s extrinsic fiction. The same can be said for universal ammo; it might have made sense on the drawing board, but in practice it helped to remove the player from the fiction that he crafted for himself while playing the game. (While playing as a sniper, finding 30.06 ammo is rewarding and specifically significant to that individual experience.)

Even today, five years later, Invisible War’s biggest problem (bigger than universal ammo and no skill points and fewer overall choices) is that most people are incapable of analyzing anything beyond the context of their own experience. Anything they like is Good, and anything they don’t like is Bad, and as far as they’re concerned that’s the end of the story, but such subjective, dogmatic valuation is ultimately flawed, because, as Steve Martin once pointed out, it excludes metaphysics. This means that there are specific criteria that determine the “good” or “bad” of any game, and which exist independently of personal preferences and opinions.

When evaluated on its own merit, Invisible War is a great game. It’s only with comparison to the original Deus Ex that it suffers, simply by virtue of the fact that it’s smaller in both depth and scope than the first, but when judged for what it is instead of what it might have been, I challenge anyone to formulate a credible argument against the game’s intrinsic virtues.

I’ve liked plenty of bad games (Pirates: The Legend of Black Kat, Too Human, Jedi Power Battles), but this doesn’t mean that I would be justified in abandoning all critical faculty and upholding my personal preferences as empirical truth in order to label these games as patently “good.” Too much of that goes on already, leading to the subjective existential nightmare we call “popular culture.”

Both the PC and Xbox versions of Invisible War are rife with low-resolution textures and frequent load screens, and the PC version ran slowly on even the most advanced gaming rigs of the day, but in spite of its aesthetic shortcomings it remains imminently playable even today. It provides a badly needed foray into the arena of player-driven customization and expression, in spite of the fact that it doesn’t stand up to its progenitor; with the lone exception of the intrusively frequent area transitions it can hold its own against any first-person shooter released over the last five years. While it lacks the moral barometer of BioShock, and the tight, immersive presentation of HalfLife 2, it feels less like a watered-down rehash of its predecessor than does BioShock (in regard to System Shock 2), and it’s much less likely to force a fight than either of the two, giving the player the option to determine when it’s best to sneak, and when it’s best to go in with the enemy Paste-O’-Tron running at full-blast.

Any unfavorable assessments of the game which are based on nothing but the fact that it’s not Deus Ex should also be considered at face value and judged for what they are; mindless fanboy rants inspired by an inability to evaluate anything beyond the relativistic borders of personal opinion.

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