Saturday, December 14

The High Horse Audit 2013: The Top 5 Games of the Year of Luigi

I don't know what happened, but I never got around to naming my games of the year for 2012 on this here blog. Writing for Games Are Evil last year, I nominated Journey as the game that had the greatest impact on me in what was a very busy year where gaming time came at a premium. Now in this, the Year of Luigi, I found myself with even less time to sit in front of my beloved consoles and plug away at AAA blockbusters. Something very odd happened being separated from machines that churned out quality 6-10 hour action adventures where the primary objective was to shoot and hack at faces: I rediscovered my love of the role playing game.

Ever since I started writing about games, I felt compelled to consume the titles -- indie games not withstanding -- that could be finished in the shortest amount of time possible. I needed to feel as though I could talk about a game as a whole and know most of what it offered players. Now, commuting for up to four hours a day, sometimes I need something repetitive to keep me engaged without demanding too much in terms of reflexes. Games that throw the odd carrot of narrative and then require hours of grinding towards the next objective. The games I enjoyed the most this year could not be disposed of on a lazy weekend: they required weeks, sometimes months, worth of navigating through menus and selecting commands.

Behold, my favourite games of 2013:

5. Hotline Miami (PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita - Played on PS3 and Vita)
I know, I know: Hotline Miami came out last year on PC. It had its time in the sun and has no right to be in a list of 2013's finest videogames. Hear me out though, the PlayStation Vita port of the ridiculously violent indie darling is one of the tightest and addictive experiences available on the Sony handheld. Its blend of button and touchscreen controls turned the PC's messy keyboard and mouse-controlled ballet of bullets and bodies into one of the most refined score attack games that I've ever played. Not only does the game look better on the Vita's OLED screen, it's infinitely more playable when luck is taken out of the equation. Last year with the PC version, I was proud to say that I bested its brutal campaign. With this new version, I became a competitive player posting scores in the top fifty for some levels and uncovering many of the game's secrets. A must for any Vita owner who can handle the odd bucket full of pixelated blood. 

4. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 - Played on PlayStation 3)
Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (MGR) is one the silliest games I have ever played. The story is ridiculous, for the most part I would say incoherent. The soundtrack is the greatest heavy metal cheese platter that money could buy. The visuals are a mix of dull, muddily rendered environments and beautifully detailed character models that can just as soon be cut into a thousand pieces as they can attack the cybernetically-enhanced protagonist. It won't appeal to everyone, but for me the Might Morphin' Power Rangers level of ceremony that came with cinematics and boss fights made MGR stand out as the best brawler released in the year where Dante made a competent return in DmC: Devil May Cry and Dead Rising went next gen with an outstanding third installment. Light, bloody and satisfying entertainment with a sense of style that is easily attributable to Platinum Games, the studio that gave us the whimsically hairy Bayonetta.

3. Persona 4 Golden (PlayStation Vita)
Persona 4 Golden (P4G) is another dubious inclusion as it was released in most territories in 2012 (I imported the Asia version), only to see the light of day in Europe and Australia early this year. Considering that I am based in Australia and didn't actually play the game until after it was released here, I've decided to consider P4G as a 2013 release. One of the best of them to be exact.

One of the few RPGs I've played where the grind truly felt optional, I found myself heading back into the nightmare-themed dungeons because I wanted my party to be the best they could be. The undeniably difficult but fair combat system kept me engaged for more than sixty hours, and that's without even dabbling in a New Game Plus playthrough.

I do want to head back to Inaba though, as Chie, Yukiko, Kanji, Rise, Naoto, the Dojimas and Teddie are wonderful characters that I can't wait to meet again. Yosuke's alright too I guess. In truth, P4G's Social Link system is the best thing about the game, and the conversations you have with your party members, family and fellow students convey a sense of warmth that is missing from most AAA blockbusters.

2. Fire Emblem: Awakening (Nintendo 3DS)
Fire Emblem: Awakening sunk its hooks into me and wouldn't let go until my family of adventurers was safe from the Fell Dragon Grima. I would (soft) reset the game whenever I lost a companion because:
  1. I deeply cared about the vast majority of the characters.
  2. If I didn't care about one character specifically, odds are they were engaged in a relationship with one whose happiness meant the world to me.
  3. The characters seemed to genuinely care for each other and I couldn't handle the thought of them grieving over their cutie comrades.  
I would agonize for hours over which of my units would make the best couples. In some cases it was further proof that I should avoid playing cupid, but there were some genuinely heartwarming unions forged on the battlefield. Strategy games aren't often renowned for characterization, but through short and memorable interactions in and away from the heat of battle, I perceived a genuine community that I would stop at nothing to protect. No matter how long I spent on one of the lengthy chapters, no man or woman would be left behind. It also helps that the turn-based strategy action was made even more compelling through the inclusion of customizable and readily swappable classes and pair attacks. The best game in what has been a bumper year for the 3DS in this, the Year of Luigi.

1. Marvel Puzzle Quest: Dark Reign (Android, iOS, PC - Played on my Samsung Galaxy SIII)
After buying two next generation consoles on their respective launch days, it almost hurts to admit that the game that I've enjoyed the most and spent the greatest amount of time with this year is a free-to-play puzzle game with a throwaway story and hideously-tempting ways to spend real money. Yet here we are, nearing the end of yet another weekly tournament with another highly desirable character card up for grabs for those willing to invest countless hours and, no doubt, dollars into holding their spot on the leaderboards. You don't need to spend any money to enjoy Marvel Puzzle Quest: Dark Reign , but the other addicts I've consulted confessed that they felt duty-bound to financially support a game that they've sunk days' worth of time into. I relented for over a month, only just spilling a measly 99 cents to keep a tenth character on the books. Demiurge deserve more; however, as I've been sent on a roller-coaster ride of frustration, exhilaration, and judgement-impeding nostalgia that's easily worth the cost of any PlayStation 4 or Xbox One game sitting on my shelf. At first glance, this is yet another Match 3 puzzle game with progress potentially accelerated through microtransactions. Spend roughly an hour with it and you'll see the depth and charm of any other Puzzle Quest installment, only bolstered by the inclusion of characters, both household names and relatively obsure, from the Marvel Comics stable. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by trialling this freemium delight.

Wednesday, December 11

Anniversary 3: The Year That Disappeared

Dearest Carly Pie
This year kind of slipped away
So very busy

Under much pressure
We grow closer and our hair
Shorter by the day

Own the pixie cut
Become one with Tinkerbell
Let us share hair gel

Let's always make time
To share in our pyjamas
Watch Law & Order

I love you more now
Than I did this exact day
Three short years ago

Wednesday, November 27

Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate Review (PSV): A long trail of empty promises

There is a point where I thought that Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate (herein referred to as "Blackgate") was due to end. There was a boss fight, a few puzzles and a room that was thick with finality. I thought I was knee deep in the conclusion, but I was then again tasked with playing fetch throughout Blackgate's labyrinthine wings.

My meandering, directionless agony was set to continue. Again I would wrestle with the game's nonsensical map.

The worst thing is that it shouldn't have been this way. Well, at least not on paper. If you read into it before release, Blackgate should have been one of the better games released in 2013. A Metroidvania -- for those not in the know, that means a platformer with role-playing game elements and a map that opens up with the acquisition of new equipment and abilities -- title starring Batman and developed by Armature Studio, which is partly comprised of Retro Studio alums. Retro Studios just happened to be responsible for two of the greatest Metroidvania games that I've ever played (just to clarify, I haven't played Metroid Prime 3: Corruption or much of Hunters on the DS, so that count may deserve to be bigger). If that's not enough, the Arkham series' signature combat, investigation and stealth systems would also be translated into 2.5 dimensions. Such promise!

It starts off well enough: the game looks good and the punching, kicking and stalking work just fine. There were lengths of time where I found that I was actually enjoying myself too, but these stretches are undermined by poor direction and hapless navigation. The best games in the genre subtly guide players to the next objective whilst also encouraging experimentation with new tools in previously-explored environments. Blackgate gives you new tools and a marker on an indecipherable map: good luck sorting that shit out. Suffice to say you'll be rubbing your screen (which activates Detective mode) looking for some indication of where to go next for hours at a time.

I'd wager at least a third of the 6 hours I spent playing the game involved asking aloud (on public transport, on my bed, in the park), "Where the fuck do I go now?". No short order of competent boss fights or charming comic book cutscenes could really redeem the game; no matter how badly I wanted it to. Still, if I'm being honest, I enjoyed this game as much as the 2011 mega hit, Arkham City and the less said about Arkham Origins, the better.

Wait until this shows up in the PlayStation Plus Instant Game Collection, otherwise approach only if seen in the bargain bin. Heartbreaking stuff.

Sunday, November 10

Grand Theft Auto V Review (PS3): Boys' Club

I quit reading critical discourse about videogames upon Grand Theft Auto V's release.

Cold turkey. 

I mean, having finished it, I can confirm that it's misogynistic and cynical, but I just didn't want to believe that something I would love would be so objectionable. Shortly after Leigh Alexander's prophetic review (prophetic in that she hadn't even played the game before writing this particular piece) was turned into a catchy tune, I thought it best to best to have my cake and eat it in silence. 

'Cause see, Grand Theft Auto V is a great game. It is also, however, a deeply-flawed tale of friendship in spite of betrayal and years' worth of conspiracy.

By great game I mean there is literally a mission where you're tasked with using a high tech, high-powered sniper rifle to destroy a light aircraft's engine as one character, only to then chase the descending plane and sort through the wreckage as another. The scope of San Andreas is astounding, and the way in which players can switch between protagonists to experience what is really well-worn territory from multiple perspectives makes this sandbox murder crime death simulator stand out from its predecessors; at least in terms of the breadth of ways there are that players can interact with videogame space. Apart from body swapping, there's not a great deal of activities that feel genuinely new, but there's no denying that there is oft-mythologized "fun" to be found in this fictional city's streets, landmarks and establishments. 

One could argue that the heist missions are an innovation, but in truth, these mission sets simply mask some of the more painful parts of GTA mission design. Where in previous games, players may have been asked to steal a getaway car and stash it in a discreet location before committing a greater misdeed directly afterwards, the fetch quest is now a standalone mission that can be completed at a player's leisure. Once set up, the heist missions are sterling examples of Rockstar North's craft, but let's not pretend that "steal a fire truck then lose the cops" is a breath of fresh air.  

Shooting is still a little awkward, the camera still has trouble with interiors, and it's still really hard to connect with one, let alone three, men who would just as likely shoot you as they would talk to you. I guess this time though the disconnect between your protagonists' actions and their words aren't as jarring. Our heroes may disagree in terms of how to approach a certain situation, or life for that matter, but they won't often share feelings of grief or guilt with you. There's no yearning for a less violent, law-abiding existence before dispatching an entire state's worth of law enforcement personnel. That being said, Franklin and Michael's apathy toward grievous acts of violence is hard to reconcile; even after spending roughly ten hours in their respective pairs of shoes. Trevor is a completely different and compelling animal though. He's genuine and shows no signs of pretension. He's happy to set up business deals in a cute floral dress or his trademark blood-stained pants. I'm sure I'm not the first to express the sentiment, but in scripted sequences he acts in a way that seems organic for someone who indulges every sociopathic urge to kill, commit crime and further oneself. In other words, he's a believable lead for a Grand Theft Auto game; perhaps the most believable the series has seen. 

The tale that brings these men together rarely surprises and the ending (the one I chose, to be accurate) was so clean so as to be completely unsatisfying. There's few likeable supporting characters, and even less that are memorable. Worse yet, the sights and sounds of San Andreas reinforce the cynicism of the protagonists. It also bears mentioning that I can't think of a single female character that felt like anything more than the butt of a joke. It's not that Grand Theft Auto V constantly tries to denigrate women, they're just notably absent from this tale. The women that do appear throughout the narrative, however, are caricatures sourced from reality television and mediocre, syndicated shows that have since faded from relevance. While a great deal of the missions are "fun" to play through, Grand Theft Auto V often reads like the developers were trying to say nothing as loudly as they possibly could.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the "Strangers and Freaks" side missions that offer access to activities like skydiving, underwater salvage and... border protection. I can imagine a conference call with Dan Houser where he would describe the Minute Men missions as elaborate satire. "See! One of the volunteer border protection zealots can't speak English, but he's trying to force those that he perceives as illegal immigrants out of the country! Xenophobes being accepting of people from one country but not from another. Isn't that ridiculous and not racist?" The end to your partnership with the Minute Men is, well, just as pointless as that with any other character in the game, but the bottom line is: don't look to Grand Theft Auto V for biting social commentary. Most of the side missions are well worth experiencing, but more for enjoyment of the activities contained within, rather than the chance to discover another citizen of San Andreas. 

Back to technical evaluation, this is the best looking game on current generation hardware. I don't even feel the need to clarify that observation with a genre, the scope of San Andreas and the details you'll find within are simply staggering. Random events like carjackings, purse snatchings, drug deals gone awry, and mob killings serve to further immerse you in a crime-riddled state that you'd no sooner visit than a warzone. 

I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure GTA V is the first instalment to feature an original score (other than an intro and ending theme). There's several standout pieces and just as many that fall flat, but it's well worth a listen outside of the glitz, glamour and violence of the game itself. There's also a vast array of radio stations accessible in most of the vehicles you'll ride or fly, but for mine, there's slim pickings in terms of listenable content. There's no one station I could happily stay tuned into,  no MSX FM or Radio X that's safe for an entire day. There's sure to be at least one tolerable song playing at any time of a given day cycle, but I'd go as far to say this is the weakest assemblage of licensed music in a GTA game to date. 

If you're one of the two people stuck on the fence as to whether Grand Theft Auto V is for you, allow me to assure you that as long as you're male, this is a safe buy (ha! Sexism). This is an at times painfully-masculine assortment of people, places and positions, but there is so much "fun" to be found in this massive world. Sure there's a lot of dead space, but I was awe struck on multiple occasions by the scale of the action sequences and the surprising level of detail that can be found if you look close enough. Character swapping is a great mechanic that ensures that every worthwhile interaction is had in what are, for the most part, brilliantly designed missions that span air, land and sea. The way in which the writers have cynically dealt with women and the death of the American Dream are hard to take at times, but this is a Good Game©.

Saturday, August 17

Muramasa Rebirth Review (PSV): Let's play a painting (a fucking rad painting)

With your PlayStation 4s and Xbox Ones around the corner, photorealistic graphics are going to be what every developer and their Call of Duty dog strives for. The two-dimensional sidescroller will soon solely become the domain of indie developers. Not that I don't appreciate their work, more that your average publisher won't want any part of a niche market comprised of a small set of customers yearning for experiences from a bygone age.

Enter Muramasa Rebirth, a remake of the (previously) Wii exclusive, Muramasa: The Demon Blade. I never played the 2009 home console release, but I have read enough songs of praise for Vanillaware's beat 'em up to make the idea of importing the handheld iteration sound like an acceptable course of action. Let's face it: at this point, importing any new retail release for the Vita sounds like a plan because new releases for Sony's fledgling portable are rarer than hens' teeth, and publishers aren't exactly breaking their backs to get their games to Australia. I can understand why, mind you; but still, the game's showing a release date of "TBC 2013" on the EBGames' website and our friends across various ponds have been playing it for two to five months now!

Oh yeah, the game! Let's talk about that, rather than the business of releasing games Down Under.

I loved this game. Loved it. I can fully understand if someone didn't want to give it time to see the time of day or wanted it to burn in a fire though.

For one, it's mighty repetitive. When you're not mashing the square button for minutes on end, it's more than likely that you'll notice some familiar scenery. The two campaigns play from and to opposite sides of Genroku era Japan to attempt to break up the monotony, but save for a few enemy types that are unique to each, there are a lot of common experiences spread across 10 hours plus.

Secondly, it's repetitive. Save for one boss fight that takes the concept of "verticality" and turns it up to 11, you'll have seen all the different types of combat scenarios the game has to offer after about two hours of play. So, that means shitloads of lengthy boss fights, hundreds of often frustrating exchanges between high flying enemies, and just generally bashing shit until it falls over. If you're looking for "surprise" in the conventional videogame sense of the word, there is no turret sequence and you can't jump in a vehicle to "freshen up" the experience. This is a beat 'em up: you will beat shit up on a 2 dimensional plane. That is it.

It's a good thing then that bashing shit up in Muramasa Rebirth happens to be somewhat enjoyable. The range of attacks that both Momohime and Kisuke have at their disposable are varied, and generally have your chosen character darting from one side of the battlefield to the other with a flurry of strikes. Some of the more open arenas lead to some particularly satisfying battles where you can string attacks together and climb from tree to tree (or cliff to cliff), leaving bodies above, below and to the side of you. There are some slight RPG elements at play here, but none of the special, blade-specific Secret Arts will greatly affect how you play (on the standard difficulty setting, at least).

I probably should've mentioned this earlier, but this has to be one of the best-looking games on the Vita. Hell, it's one of the most visually-arresting games I've played this year. Anything from the most fearsome demon to serene shorelines are rendered by hand, and the animation quality is top-notch. The game's visuals are reminiscent of a kakejiku that's come alive. The greatest joy in this game comes from running through a vibrant Japan and catching Momohime and Kisuke's wry glance at you mid-flight: it's hauntingly beautiful.

The boss fights probably wouldn't be anywhere near as memorable -- and in some cases, bearable -- were it not for Murama Rebirth's memorable artistic direction. Some of these encounters encourage movement and require enough skill and timing so as to be satisfying, but the vast majority require you to a) mash the fuck out of the square button and b) push the analogue stick to the right. Sometimes, ten minutes of bashing your sword against a wall would seem a challenge if not for the fact the game is so easy on the eyes.

There are some other quibbles, like the finnicky positioning required to start a conversation with NPCs, the apparent ignorance of the developers regarding the Vita's touch interface (and how that could've remedied the aforementioned issue), and two difficulty settings that allow for either careless play or require judicious use of resources (where's my happy medium?), but they don't detract enough from Muramasa Rebirth's gorgeous veneer to warrant further discussion. I'm sure that most will appreciate it's beauty, however, I'm less convinced that all could see its charm. If you don't mind playing with one less dimension and have an itch for some swordplay, I'd recommend this without hesitation.  

Friday, July 5

The High Horse Audit: My 50 Favourite Games

Following in the footsteps of Kotaku Australia editor, Mark Serrels, I've decided to share my slant on what are the top 50 games of all time. There was a great disclaimer to his list that I think I'll apply to my own:

– I know [insert game here] isn’t on the list. I know that’s outrageous. Make your own list and post it in the comments!
– [Edited] There's a few Star Wars/Mario/fighting games in his list and it reflects the games I like and the games I’ve fallen in love with.
– People like different things for different reasons!
– Please do not use this list to justify any future comments I make in the future, or even things I might have said in the past. This is simply a list that represents how I feel right now. It would be different if I were to make it in the next 30 minutes, let alone in a year or two!
– I’ve written down the platform I played the game on — I realise it might have been on other platforms!
– Yes, they are ranked!

50. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Arcade/XBLA)
49. WWF War Zone (PS1)
48. Devil May Cry (PS2)
47. Burnout 3: Takedown (PS2)
46. BioShock (X360/PS3)
45. Mickey Mouse and the Castle of Illusion (Sega GG)
44. Quackshot (Sega MD)
43. Fallout (PC)
42. Wolfenstein 3D (PC)
41. Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction (PS2)
40. Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega MD)
39. Hotline Miami (PC/PS Vita)
38. Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour (GC)
37. Lumines (PSP)
36. Thrasher: Skate and Destroy (PS1)
35. Metal Gear Ac!d 2 (PSP)
34. Pokemon: Sapphire Version (GBA)
33. Time Crisis (Arcade/PS1)
32. Halo Reach (X360)
31. Bastion (XBLA)
30. Red Dead Redemption (PS3)
29. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005 (PS2)
28. Crackdown (X360)
27. Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap (Sega MS)
26. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 (PS2)
25. Street Fighter IV (PS3)
24. Metal Gear Solid (PS1)
23. Mario Kart: Double Dash (GC)
22. Relentless: Twinsen's Adventure (PC)
21. Gears of War (X360)
20. Super Mario Bros 3 (NES/GBA)
19. StarCraft (PC)
18. Streets of Rage 2 (Sega MD)
17. Resident Evil 4 (GC)
16. Super Monkey Ball (GC)
15. Doom (PC/XBLA)
14. Crusader: No Remorse (PC)
13. WWE Smackdown: Here Comes The Pain (PS2)
12. Tie Fighter (PC)
11. Def Jam: Fight for New York (PS2)
10. Soul Calibur II (PS2)
9. Tekken 4 (PS2)
8. Grand Theft Auto III (PS2)
7. Capcom VS SNK 2: Mark of the Millennium (PS2)
6. Fire Emblem: Awakening (3DS)
5. Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight (PC)
4. Shining Force (Sega MD)
3. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (PS2)
2. Final Fantasy VII (PS1)
1. Vagrant Story (PS1)

Source: Kotaku Australia

Sunday, June 16

Animal Crossing: New Leaf - Mayor's Log, Part 1

I've never played an Animal Crossing game before, but a series of extremely enthusiastic New Leaf fans on Twitter pushed me over the edge. Last night I started my quest, knowing only that I'd encounter a clutch of achingly cute animals along the way. Join me as I get to know the citizens of Geebung.

June 15th, 7:30pm: I'm met on the train by an adorable cat (?) named Rover. He asks me where I'm going, and because of a very small character limit, my destination will be Geebung (the suburb where I grew up) instead of New Holland. After a few minutes of general chit chat he tells what I assume to be an inside joke (been riding this train since 2002 apparently) and it dawns on me that I haven't been asked to customize an avatar. So, do I get to use my Mii, or is there a standard character that everyone has to play?

June 15th, 7:35pm: Hey, I'm a small, brown haired, white boy. Hooray for diversity, I guess. 

June 15th, 7:37pm: I'm introduced to the townsfolk, a charming array of anthropomorphised animals and am proclaimed mayor of Geebung. I challenge this assertion, because as far as I know, I was just visiting. No, it appears that it is I who is mistaken, and I will be the new mayor of Geebung.

June 15th, 7:40pm: I'm informed that I will need a place of residence before I can officially be sworn in as mayor. I am asked to meet with a real estate agent immediately. All the other businesses in Geebung are closed and I notice there's only a handful of houses here, so it stands to reason that if your livelihood is selling property, you'd best be on call.

June 15th, 7:43pm: I settle on a lakeside site next to some trees. There's been no mention of cost at this point. Do they give away waterfront properties in Geebung?

June 15th, 7:44pm: My real estate agent, Tom Nook sets up a tent for  me to use while the house is being built. He gives me a lantern and shows me how to set it up and use it. "This is a set up," I think to myself, afflicted with mild paranoia. He tells me to see him tomorrow to get the bill. I knew this was too good to be true!

June 15th, 7:46pm: Isabelle, my colleague in the mayor's office confirms my birthday and gives me a Town Pass Card. She then leads me to my inauguration ceremony in the town square. I plant a tree and bask in the insincerity of my new people. I am now the mayor.

June 15th, 7:50pm: I put the console to sleep so I can watch the Waratahs get thumped by the British and Irish Lions. Throughout the game I think back to the one piece in this puzzle that doesn't fit: Rover. Was he supposed to be Geebung's incoming mayor? What did he have to gain from me being installed as leader? Was I thinking into this a little too much? Only time would tell.

June 15th, 9:45pm: I attend the Bug-Off trophy ceremony. I am the mayor after all and this is a prime chance to be seen with my constituents. The judge appears to have eaten each of the winning entries; looks like a trophy is the most that any contestant can hope to walk away with. With each trophy conferral, we clap -- that is to say that we try to, our hands never quite meet but a thunderous sound is being made anyway. I'm tired and a little drunk. I need to leave before I make a scene.

June 15th, 9:55pm: I stumble from tree to tree, shaking them in the hope of finding treasure or some clue as to why I'm in this post. I acquire fruit and money. I shake one last tree, my view of the ensuing melee is obscured by another tree. I emerge with one eye swollen, stung by a swarm of angry bees!

June 15th, 10:00pm: What a night. I retire for fear of being further brutalised by the wildlife of Geebung.

June 16th: 7:30am: I awaken and exit my tent to find myself greeted by my postman, a pelican. He explains the mail system and warns me to check for incoming letters regularly or else my box will overflow and I'll then miss out on any additional mail. I have one letter from an anonymous sender, he indicates that it was he who was supposed to be thrust into the role or mayor, but insists I'll be fine. I swear at this point that I will hunt this villain down and bring him to justice for the grievous fraud he has committed!


June 16th, 7:38am: Isabelle briefs me on the mechanics of mayorhood and drops the bombshell that my approval rating is a whopping thirteen percent. I've just moved here, been thrust into a leadership role and I'm living in a fucking tent. Give me a break!

June 16th, 7:39am: Pacing with murderous intent following my shocking poll results, I run into a boar who tries to sell me some turnips. She explains that people don't eat them much anymore, but I can buy and sell them to various people to turn a profit. Can these turnips be used to manufacture drugs, I wonder; why else would the market be so volatile? I mean, if you're not going to eat the fucking things, then why are you buying them? I can now see through Geebung's smiling veneer and behold the festering shithole of addiction and greed that lies beneath. I want to die.

June 16th, 8:38am: Riddled with anxiety, I visit the real estate agent to see just how far I've submerged myself in debt. To my surprise, his office is closed and he didn't leave me with any other means to contact him.

June 16th, 8:39am: I visit the post office. Apparently Nintendo had left something for me: a rainbow screen.    I wonder if I can sell it off to scrounge for a house payment.

June 16th, 8:40am: I visit Nookling Junction and find myself greeted by Tommy, who appears to be a cute, brown raccoon thing. He likes to give some subtext to everything he says, whispering sweet nothings after each of his utterances. Bells, the town's currency are "So shiny," and he wants me to come back because he'd "Love to see me." I sell some cherries for roughly one thousand bells. I wonder whether feeding myself will become problematic if I can score a grand for some common fruit. It comes to mind that I've played this game for roughly ninety minutes and still haven't murdered anything. I buy a shovel: not only because it should be a deadly weapon, but it should help me to dispose of any evidence that could incriminate while I sit in Geebung's throne. I also buy a bug net, because I'll show those shitheads how to win a Bug Off.

June 16th, 8:47am: To my horror, it doesn't look as though I can do much damage with this shovel. I do, however, unearth three fossils while digging around the town. I wonder how much money I can get for these things? What ancient creatures lived beneath this city's tiny houses?

June 16th, 11:55am: I visit Tom Nook's office again. Ten thousand dollars, for a lakeside property in this economy. Things could be worse. Tom tells me to go fishing and catch bugs to make the down payment. My first instinct is to tell him to go to hell. As if you could afford a house by pawning sea shells, but then I remembered that puzzling formula from this morning: 8 bunches of cherries = approximately $1000.

June 16th, 12:07pm: I speak with Blathers, the owl curator of Geebung's museum. At first he seems shitty at me for waking him up, but he's cooled off. He assesses the fossils I've found to reveal that I've been lugging dinosaur skulls across my city. What the fuck, these bones are probably worth millions and he wants me to donate them FOR SCIENCE? Knowing my luck, I've probably got kids to feed somewhere in this dungeon of a town.

June 16th, 12:18pm: I need ten large. If I want a solid roof over my head, I'm going to have to meet that end.  I started shaking cherry trees, but they weren't fetching as much at Re-Tail. I collected shells and bells. I hunted butterflies and for as long as I'd been in Geebung, I found the closest thing to pure joy.

June 16th, 12:30pm: Nook has his fucking money now and tomorrow I'll have a house. What will I need to endure to survive my tenure as mayor of Geebung? Will I exact sweet revenge on Rover? Tune in next week to find out!

Crotch Cam, Care Bears and Metro: Last Light

I can't do scary movies. When my brothers and friends used to insist on viewing films such as Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later, I would accompany them, but I'd also spend between ninety and one hundred and twenty minutes with my eyes fixed squarely on my crotch. Even when watching the relatively lighthearted    murder sprees found in the Friday the 13th series, I would stick my fingers in my ears to block out the sounds associated with men being torn limb from limb. I'm certain that my entourage would tell you that I whimpered on occasion - I'm not saying I did, but I wouldn't put it past them all the same.

I was able to play the odd survival horror title without crawling into the fetal position, however. Something about having agency in a raft of terrifying situations allowed me to deal with the sort of gratuitous violence that normally have my glance heading south. Resident Evil 1 through 4, the first Silent Hill, Dead Rising, and titles like Dino Crisis and F.E.A.R -- that weren't necessarily scary, but would try and get you to jump with surprise attacks and limited resources -- were able to be bested despite my inability to compute cinematic horror.    

As time's gone by and I've branched out from friends and family, our expeditions to view abhorrent content have become less and less frequent, and I've strayed away from the offensive content almost entirely as a result. It's to the point where I'm even shying away from violent games: Resident Evil 5,6 and Dead Space 3 have been lying around the house unplayed for months, Dead Space 2 has been in the backlog for years now. I thought I could go the rest of my life without my heart rate rising on account of copious amounts of blood, guts and screams of terror.

Then I found myself in the Metro. Surrounded by floor-to-ceiling spider webs, haunted, eviscerated rail cars, and amorphous pods of skin that spew slime and more spiders, I found that the best way to deal with my fear was to let it out. I mean really let it out: squealing and swearing as I trudged my way through the depths of post-apocalyptic Russia. I'm like a surly, cowardly sailor shooting barbs and buckshot towards creatures that make my nightmares look like scenes from an episode of Care Bears.

It's not just the grotesqueries that have me perpetually wailing "That's fucked up!" either, it's the sounds that accompany them. The taut strings that score the stealth sequences, the skittering of six (maybe eight?) very large legs, the blood-curdling screams and cries for mercy from innocent survivors: if my fingers weren't wrapped tightly around the controller, they'd be in my ears.

I actually relish the chance to face human opponents. They're predictable, they're preoccupied and they only see me coming when I want them to. It's not so much that the AI-controlled opponents aren't cunning strategists as much as they are blind. Unless a strong light source is present, consider the greenlight for shenanigans flashed.

In any case, I'm glad that Metro: Last Light has provided some fuel for that final, flickering spark of courage hidden at the back of my brain. If you have any love of bleak, post-apocalyptic scenarios or thick Russian accents, I strongly suggest you give it a try.

Tuesday, April 30

Mission (sort of) Accomplished: Gamefast 2 ends in success!

It's been four, gruelling months, but I survived. Gamefast 2: The Plum Sake Slushie Mandate ends in success as I've abstained from buying any games, downloadable content or items of gaming hardware in 2013 to date so far.

I'm not going to lie, this victory isn't as comprehensive as it could have been. An exceedingly generous woman who was willing to support me in my weaker moments ensured that I made it across the line. Allow me, if you will, to detail the care packages rendered by my beloved wife - I nominated "reasons" for the timed delivery of salvation because surely someone doesn't help another tackle addiction through the goodness, and only the goodness, of their own heart right? Right? 

Month - January, Reason - Just because
DmC: Devil May Cry (PS3)

DmC was probably the best game/carrot I could've hoped for. So slow it was to get started that I found myself starting to look to the backlog for more engaging experiences. The Darkness II, Halo 4 and Sonic & All-Stars Racing were all conquered thanks to the new Dante's inability to get me hooked proper. As per my review, once it did get started, I found myself addicted... but my word, Ninja Theory made me wait. 

Month - February, Reason - Valentine's Day
Anarchy Reigns (PS3)
Dead Space 3 (PS3)
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

Carly's generosity served to reinforce the reasons why I probably shouldn't be buying multiple games every pay cycle. Example: I'm still yet to play Dead Space 3 and Anarchy Reigns for longer than 15 minutes. I played Ni No Kuni for a grand total of ten hours. If I was un or under-employed, I dare say I would've invested a great deal more time in this Greatest Hits collection of JRPG tropes. It may not deliver many surprises, but it offers charm and warmth in spades.  

Months - March/April, Reason - Birthday
BioShock Infinite (PS3)
Injustice: Gods Among Us - Collector's Edition (PS3)
Fire Emblem: Awakening (3DS)

If Nintendo had their shit together, I dare say I could've lasted four months on Fire Emblem: Awakening alone. For those unaware, the game was released in the United States in February while the PAL release was delayed for the purpose of proper English translation. It's achingly beautiful, I've spent more than ten hours with it so far and I have every intention of finishing it. Thoughts of romance, experience farming and micromanagement have haunted my every waking moment since it was gifted to me just over a week ago. BioShock Infinite is the early front-runner -- I'd almost go as far to say it's the unbackable favourite -- for most disappointing game of 2013. It may have been enjoyable enough to warrant a second playthrough, but the thematic and narrative failures in this package still have me hurting. Finally, I'm yet to spend much time with Injustice, but the game has well and truly reinvigorated my faith in the concept of the Collector's Edition: a quality statue, comic book and exclusive DLC all for 10 bucks more than the price of the standard game. Stellar!

Fortune -- in the form of timed redemption promotion -- allowed me to get a hold on some of 2013's releases without spending a dollar of my own money. Buying a new Toshiba TV upon my return from Christmas holidays netted me a prepaid credit card which I used to pick up Tomb Raider (which remains unplayed), the criminally-underrated Castlevania: Subtitle Squared, and StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm. I may not have spent much time with the Zerg, but installing the new expansion compelled me to go back and finish Wings of Liberty.  

I was also able to procure a review copy of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance back in February and just last Friday, my little brother gave me a copy of Trion World's latest MMO, Defiance. The story behind the latter is pretty funny: Reuben's obsessed with the game and reports issues to the developers regularly, almost to the point of harassment. In an attempt to thank him for his near-religious fervor for the fledgling online game, he was sent a copy of the Collector's Edition; unfortunately for Trion Worlds though, they sent a US version (with DLC codes that are incompatible with his digital Australian version), so the flow of emails restarted.  

I'd love to say that I've learnt a lot from this experience, but I have to admit that I'm looking forward to spending up big as soon as I can. First on the list is Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14 following the revelation that the franchise will be shelved for 2015 to take full advantage of new console hardware. After that it'll be Luigi's Mansion 2, as I'm paranoid that I'll miss out on a physical copy with stock of first party 3DS games in Australia drying up faster than sauce at a sausage fest. 

Still, I made it, and I'm a little proud of myself. 

Tuesday, April 23

Review Fight Club: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate (3DS)

It's time to shake things up a bit. I'm not going to tell you that videogame journalism is broken or anything, but if writers insist on issuing arbitrary scores with their reviews -- which in turn can rob developers of bonuses and/or livelihoods -- then there needs to be some kind of ombudsmen to ensure that natural justice is applied for each and every game. I can't be that guy: I have a full-time job that, unfortunately for me, doesn't involve games in any way, shape or form and the time that I have to dedicate to my passion draws shorter with each passing week. I am, however, happy to look at a few games in isolation to try and validate the videogame critic's malaise. 

With this in mind, please join me for the first instalment of Review Fight Club - a series where I'll take the worst four reviews (not just necessarily because of the score awarded) rendered by the lucky games writers who have their scores posted to Metacritic. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate (hereafter referred to as Mirror of Fate) on the 3DS will be the first subject, a 2D platformer that has received "mixed or average reviews" and an aggregate score of 73 out of 100 according to the game industry's all-important arbiter.

For my part, I really enjoyed this interesting experiment which aimed to fuse the traditional 2D platformer with the God of War flavoured combat that first saw light in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow which appeared on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in 2010. It's by no means the best game that I've ever played, but was in no way deserving of the middling critical reception it was afforded - with two reviews drifting below 50.

It's easily one of the best looking games available on the 3DS, with a camera that moves to emphasize some truly impressive backgrounds and fearsome opponents. It must be said that I rarely use the 3D effects on the system, but the sections where I trialed the technology looked great. A consistent frame rate, charming, gothic art direction, and a varied assortment of well-animated, screen hogging creatures await all who are willing to see past a plethora of mixed assessments.

The other-dimensional combat is what sets Mirror of Fate apart from the majority of its kin. With controls more reminiscent of the fully 3D Lords of Shadow (and its Sony Santa Monica inspration, God of War), players can use direct and area attacks to dispatch enemies that approach high and wide. Levelling up unlocks new attacks which, while not essential for success, make it substantially easier to whip through the demonic hordes. Each character also has the ability to dodge back and forwards to evade enemy attacks. It takes quite some time to master, and considering that each playable character has their own set of weapons and abilities, the brawling seldom gets stale throughout the ten hour adventure.

This might sound odd, but the way in which abilities unlock makes sense in the overall context of the narrative. To go into much more detail would be a surefire way to spoil the story, but it would make sense that a reckless, vengeful youth, an awakened and forgetful vampire and a high ranking slayer would have varying levels of mastery over Belmont family heirlooms.

Difficulty (generally speaking, the brutal nature of it) seems to be one of the common complaints amongst games writers, and while I think the game encourages judicious use of magic and the dodge ability, I don't think it feels overly punitive. GamesBeat's Jasmine Malificent Rea offers that "you’ll often find yourself pinned in impossible situations," and that "Bosses are the worst about this and have the added bonus of ensnaring you in perpetual animation loops." Both assertions are patently untrue. Even without unlocking higher-tier abilities, all playable characters have access to both direct and area attacks. Direct attacks and combos act exactly as you'd imagine, flying directly at the enemies in front of you. Area attacks, however, have the whip and Combat Cross flinging above, behind and below you. Alternating between these attacks to control the crowd and dispatch enemies is key to survival; not as central as the dodge, but essential nonetheless.

Boss fights are difficult, but only once was I trapped in anything resembling Rea's "loop". Like any Castlevania game, bosses have a distinct and limited range of attacks and usually assault the player in patterns. The same is true in Mirror of Fate, except here, you're afforded checkpoints throughout these encounters -- which, granted, you will use -- and even specific hints if you keep getting knocked around. On more than once occasion, I was greeted with text in white all-caps telling me exactly how to avoid death when faced with a specific attack. IGN's Colin Moriarty  claims "the developer seems to have made a modest admission of its game’s complete lack of reliable combat mechanics by designing boss fights that are laughably forgiving." He then adds that through the "brute force" of the player dying and respawning, bosses can be defeated. Contrast that with Polygon's Philip Kollar who would have you believe that the boss fights are a "chore" with opponents that can "take off a fourth of your life bar" with each attack, encounters that he sees as only "passable courtesy of liberal checkpoints."

Maybe these writers should get together and decide what constitutes too hard and "laughably forgiving"? To be fair, in support of Moriarty's comments, know that each character gains an ability to either essentially convert their magic bar to a second health bar or heal themselves through attacks or dodges - two actions you'll perform as much as breathing while playing Mirror of Fate. To support Kollar, I should admit that I died at least once during most boss fights. I wouldn't say these encounters were too much of one thing or the other, they were great - you had to memorise attack patterns, experiment with magic and attacks and then act accordingly. You know, like every other Castlevania game. There's also inconsistencies in how enemy configuration is assessed. The relentlessly-negative IGN writer says that Dracula's castle is "sparsely populated by enemies" whereas Destructoid's Tony Ponce states that the Belmonts are forced to "spend an exhausting amount of time engaged in combat." What is it boys? Too many or not enough?

For those looking for the second coming of Symphony of the Night, you will find yourself wanting. Mirror of Fate doesn't offer potential for exploration: it points you in the direction of the next major event through the use of an objective marker on your mini map and you can either choose to follow the somewhat apparent path there, or deviate when the opportunity rarely presents itself. It's a system that works just fine in my opinion. The game has a sense of purpose and determination that sets it apart from its predecessors. Moriarty argues that the game is "unfocused" and that it offers "fragmented exploration," whereas Tony Ponce complains that this iteration of Dracula's castle "is essentially a straight shot." Again, a contradiction which, in my opinion, fails to acknowledge that the new breed of Castlevania is more directed and that's not necessarily to its detriment.

Spoiler warning - The following two paragraphs contains plot spoilers because Polygon's review team are clowns. 

Finally, I'll address the story which, surprise, our reviewers actually agreed on. Philip Kollar and his editor saw it fit to spoil the ending of Gabriel Belmont's 2010 adventure. Why I'm not sure. I mean they could've just referred to the antagonist as, oh, I don't know, DRACULA!? Why they thought it was relevant to the review as a whole, or even necessary to address for that matter, will haunt me until my dying days. It makes fucking zero sense. Perhaps even more infuriating, the villain is referred to as Dracula for the rest of the review! When he's not spoiling games from yesteryear, Kollar says that the "plot never goes much deeper than its introductory revenge tale, instead building to a goofy, predictable "gotcha" moment at the end."

Moriarty, Rea and Ponce are mainly on the same page, arguing that the story approaches "nonsenical", "uninteresting" and "telegraphed". I saw the twist coming as soon as I saw Alucard because I played the demo, but yeah, I can't see anyone being blown away by this nonlinear, three act play. What I will say is, since when has Castlevania been the pinacle of videogame story telling? Have you played Symphony of the Night? To see the game's true ending, you have to find a pair of magical fucking spectacles! Moreover, you'd be lucky to hear five minutes of dialogue across five hours of play! Mirror of Fate isn't the most compelling tale I've played through, but I could understand what was happening and the voice acting scored high on the Scottish Brogue Index. So there's issues with lip syncing in the otherwise beautiful cel-shaded cut-scenes. What of it?!

End spoilers. 

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate is a good game. I'd argue that the fusion of traditional 2D platforming with the kind of combat that's most usually associated with the third dimension is enough to "build an identity of its own" while still honouring its "lineage" - a courtesy that Polygon's Kollar is unwilling to afford the game. While I agree that the new breed of Castlevania is indeed "brutish", it's unfair and disingenuous of Jasmine Malificent Rea to assert that it's "disappointing because it’s trying to marry two unwilling elements". The combat system works just fine, and while the boss fights may indeed be brutal, they're able to be bested with mastery of said system and with the help of generously-doled checkpoints and hints that appear when you're just plain doing it wrong. I can't remember Konami or Mercury Steam promising "the fusion of old and new Castlevania design", but Tony Ponce should know that's what we got here, and Colin Moriarty, you got it dead fucking wrong when you said this game "isn’t worth playing at all".

I thoroughly recommend Mirror of Fate to all 3DS owners. It may not be Symphony of the Night, but then again, I don't want replication. This is genuinely different. This isn't a tired rehash of a beloved formula. This is worthy of your your time.

Saturday, April 13

Going the hard way with BioShock Infinite

If you're anything like me, you may have been left wanting for challenge if you played BioShock Infinite on the default difficulty setting. Death may have cost a few bucks and your enemies may have regained a wee bit of health, but that hardly seemed like penalty enough to warrant a change in tactics. Further to that, every man and his dog seemed to be packing enough fruit (and other health recovery items) to open a greengrocer. Every secret of Columbia can be accessed without encountering a lick of trouble, but to get any real sense of satisfaction from the myriad of combat situations you'll encounter over the course of the game, I recommend a second playthrough with 1999 Mode. 

1999 Mode is unlocked by completing the game using any difficulty or, according to IGN, by entering the Konami code while in the main menu. It's the highest difficulty level and it offers reduced spawn points, enemies that deal greater damage, a more fragile Booker DeWitt, and if you don't have enough money to cover the cost of a respawn, it's game over (don't worry though, you'll be able to reload your last save if you're bankrupted). It's not for the faint of heart, but it's far from insurmountable.

While I'll mainly be detailing general strategies, know that some battles are addressed specifically. In other words, spoilers ahead!

Money matters
Coming in a few bucks short at the register might mean that you need to wait a little while longer to experiment with gun and Vigor upgrades on lower difficulties. In 1999 Mode, budgeting can mean the difference between success and losing big chunks of progress. With this in mind, the following strategies should guide your approach to play:

·         Pick and stick with two Vigors: I know it's hard to show restraint with the breadth of visually spectacular abilities available, but there are going to be times where money is tight. Vigors are key to success in combat, but bottom line, you're going to have trouble beating most anything without lead in the equation. For my run, I chose Shock Jockey and Possession and upgraded them completely. Possession was the bedrock of my combat plans as, if nothing else, it leads to a guaranteed kill on standard infantry - including deadly troopers equipped with rocket launchers, flak cannons and sniper rifles. It also serves to slow down Motorised Patriots, Firemen and Zealots, so you can move out of harm's way. Be sure to pick up the "Possession for less" upgrade as soon as possible to make the most of your Salts. Perhaps most importantly of all, Possession allows you to make a few quick bucks when used on any vending machine; if you've got any means of refreshing your salts nearby, you simply have to take the time to steal some Silver Eagles. Shock Jockey offers an effective means of crowd control, particularly when fully upgraded. While it may not do much to slow down Handymen, it can set up a "1-2 punch" against other heavy hitters if you have a shotgun, hand cannon or crank gun at your disposal. It's also a cost effective Vigor which offers a solid trap option for more open battles.
·         The Lara Flynn Boyle Gun Rack: Pardon the Wayne's World reference, but the point is don't go purchasing upgrades for every gun. Pick a few to switch between to suit your situation, don't be a jack of all trades and a master of none. That being said, you're best off picking guns which deal big damage and have a big ammo count. A fully-upgraded carbine is the best pound-for-pound gun in the game, but you'll be well served by the shotgun, the sniper rifle, the RPG, and the hand cannon. I'd also recommend picking up a crank gun whenever you get the chance - be it from a downed Patriot, or an opportunistic tear.
·         Manage your gear: There are very few stretches of gameplay that require micromanagement of gear, but be mindful of what you're wearing if you run into trouble. For those of you who bought the Collector's Edition, make sure you have Extra! Extra! equipped when you find a Voxophone; much like possessing vending machines, you won't get much for your trouble, but it's in the bank all the same. Urgent Care is easily the most indispensable piece of kit that you'll find as it doubles the efficiency of your shield, but other pieces like Bullet Boon and Overkill are also worth searching high and low for.
·         Nooks and crannies: Keep an eye out for Vox Codes and lock picks so you have every chance of collecting Infusions and pieces of gear. My strategy of maxing out the shield before addressing Salts and then health worked extremely well. The value of the shield can easily be underestimated until you encounter your first sniper. Locked doors and secret rooms are also likely to house money as well as health and salt recovery items, so take your time and leave no desk untouched.
·         Im not supposed to go on sprees: Be sure to have enough coin saved for at least three respawns at all times. It might be tempting to buy those upgrades before you walk into a big battle, but odds are, you wont be walking out of there alive if you do.  

The heat of battle
Without addressing any specific firefights, patience and cover are key to any successful strategy. There's no shame in running back behind that wall if you cop a few choice shots. Better still, very few times was I pursued if I retreated through two or more doorways. Make sure that your shield is at full charge before you emerge from your carefully-selected sanctuary as well: you'll want as much between Booker and your enemies' bullets as you can afford. Finally, check your ammo count before you wander into the next battle; swap to another favoured firearm if you're running low on bullets for the guns you've equipped.

In retrospect, there were three situations where some advice wouldn't have gone astray:
·         The second encounter with the Siren: By far the hardest single fight in the game, duelling with Lady Comstock in the bank withdrew hundreds from my savings account. Rushing the Siren is not an option - her close range attacks do big damage, and her entourage of revive-able cronies will be more than willing to finish what she started. Worse still, there's plenty of places for the ethereal enemy to hide and weave between. My winning run didn't involve any acts of valour, rather I exploited the unwillingness of my foes to follow me through the vault door. Crouched, with my sights creeping just above the threshold, I unloaded an entire cache of sniper rifle rounds plus a few carbine shots to emerge victorious. Keep in mind that if you fall, Lady Comstock will heal completely from any unsuccessful assault.
·         The final battle with Lady Comstock: Yes, it's her again. After charging to the hidden corner of the forecourt that houses three vending machines, patience and a sniper rifle are your best friends. If you're having trouble with this fight, be sure to possess the vending machines to refill your wallet. Getting close to the Siren and her posse is, once again, a recipe for certain death.
·         Any fucking fight that involves a fucking Handyman: Sweet mother of Zeus, do I hate Handymen. They're deceptively fast, they're able to cover huge distances with a single bound and they can kill you in two hits - and that's with a fully-upgraded shield! The only advice I can give is to create as much distance between you and the big bastards as humanly possible. I know they say "Aim for the heart," but this is 1999, man! Nobody's taking a fall. When planning your escape from an onslaught, don't rely too heavily on Skylines either, as Handymen can electrify them for a big hurt. I should also probably mention that those of you who dabbled in the pre-order exclusive, Industrial Revolution should have access to and as a result, equip Handyman Nemesis - a piece of gear that will increase the damage you deal to these colossi by fifty percent.

We shall scrimp and save
For those looking for an even greater challenge, try going for the "Scavenger Hunt" achievement (or trophy, depending on your preferred system) on your 1999 run, which forbids you from buying anything from a Dollar Bill machine. Forbidding yourself from buying ammo and health does put you in some awkward situations; as an example, my first unsuccessful tilt at the second Siren fight had me exhausting all ammo for all available weapons. It is, however, entirely doable. Please note that possessing Dollar Bill machines for extra cash does not disqualify you from earning this achievement.

The conditions may seem daunting, but be rest-assured that 1999 Mode can be conquered with patience and sound strategy. Making the most of your money, guns and gear, are simple matters of budgeting and sound administration. Beating some of the more brutal opponents, however, requires a strong constitution and an eye for detail. Are we playing shooters, or going for a job interview?

If you have any hints that I've missed, please feel free to share them in the comments below. If you want to see more of my adventures on higher difficulty levels, here's my account of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance on Hard

Friday, April 12

BioShock Infinite Review (PS3): Face Value

Note: This post contains plot spoilers for BioShock Infinite. 

The original BioShock is one of the few games that, in my opinion, hailed the arrival of what was the "next generation": a game that featured a level of visual detail and depth of concept that wasn't possible on your Xboxes and PlayStation 2s. Rapture -- as the setting for a first person shooter at least -- wouldn't have been half as memorable without the extra processing power that came with the new breed of console hardware. Irrational Games' objectivist dystopia stands as one of the great places in gaming history. I had impossibly-high expectations of what screenshots, trailers and a couple of hundred previews promised to be a fitting follow-up. Could BioShock Infinite and Columbia live up to the hype? 

No. No they could not.  

Don't get me wrong, as a collection of corridors and open areas in which you dispense of hordes of people with guns and magic, this is a greatest hits collection -- complete with rockets, exploding heads and a collection of funky abilities and superpowers that could match an X-Men team from the mid 90s.  

New mechanics like the Skyline and tears -- which allow the player to use their companion, Elizabeth to summon items like cover, turrets and ammo -- help to freshen up what is some very familiar shooting and zapping for anyone who's played the previous entries in the series and most of the DLC attached to each game. It takes a few hours to find its feet, but the payoff feels pretty huge when you're riding a crazy roller coaster and slinging rockets and lightning at robotic George Washingtons. Despite its narrative and thematic failures, the gunplay is solid, sometimes approaching spectacular.  

High 5 imminent.

 Other returning mechanics serve to make others redundant, like eating food to restore health and "salts" as opposed to buying restorative items from vending machines (as an aside, salts are the energy that power your Vigors, which are essentially Infinite's version of Plasmids). If I ate an entire cake and five oranges -- which I found hidden on some corpses, so there's all types of bacteria to worry about too, I guess -- and followed that up with some coffee, I'd be set to dent some porcelain. Over the course of roughly ten hours, Booker DeWitt smashes a small corner store's monthly inventory, and he doesn't need to visit the loo once! Anyway, the plentiful supply of food negates the need to use vending machines and more than makes up for the inability to carry around health and energy packs. Talk about cast iron stomach... or broken game design. 

On the whole, the closest I've come to discerning any real meaning or message from BioShock Infinite's crazy ass, time-jumping narrative is care of GamesBeat's Rus McLaughlin who muses, "that there can be no morality in an extreme. Any extreme." Which, yeah, sounds great, but it doesn't account for a veritable plethora of plot holes and some truly uncomfortable racist overtones that serve as nothing more than window dressing. The caricatures of Native American warriors from the Wounded Knee Massacre, as well as the demonic depiction of the Chinese during the Boxer Rebellion presented during one sequence early in the game don't really challenge the player's understanding of events, they are, as put by the ABC Arts's Daniel Golding, used in a superficial way that "seeks not to make any meaningful statement about history or racism or America, but instead seeks to use an aesthetics of racism and history as a barrier to point to and claim importance." 

Infinite's story is character driven and focused. The city of Columbia, along with its troubling racist and fundamentalist Christian themes are there only to build Zachary Comstock up as an infamous villain. Comstock, it must be said, is no match for Andrew Ryan, the antagonist of the original BioShock. Where Ryan taunted the player and glorified the achievements of Rapture and his objectivist ideology, Comstock spouts racist bile and relatively rarely directs his ire at DeWitt himself. Voxophones, Infinite's answer to the Audio Diary, are geared more towards character development and major plot points than on world building, and Columbia suffers as a result. The final revelation says more about one man in isolation than it does about life, video games, the infinite possibilities of an uncharted universe or any particular ideology. It's entirely possible that you'll end up moved by the closing hours of this story, but for mine, there were too many questions with answers that failed to satisfy.  

Do you know this guy?

 Most frustrating of all is that several plot points are glossed over in Voxophones that you won't likely find in your first play through. I gleaned more about the fearsome Songbird from reading two years worth of previews than I did from the roughly twenty second sound byte that addresses its design and some throwaway comments from Elizabeth. Worse still, I didn't really get the feeling that its relationship with the heroine was anywhere near as strong as that hinted by a slew of games writers who saw the game across various stages of its development. The relentless focus on central characters means that, for me at least, several moments lacked the impact you'd imagine that they'd have. Worse still, it meant that Columbia was more a neo-classical poster board for racist and religious slogans than an actual place.  

Vigors are another example of important lore that's hidden in Voxophones and otherwise not addressed effectively. Without obtaining, and then listening to the relevant recording, you'd have no idea what such dangerous talents are doing at the disposal of every man, woman and child in Columbia. Not that the explanation afforded is overly convincing either, as I can't for the life of me figure out why a tyrannical figure like Comstock would allow something like the ability to shoot fire from your hands to be procured by anyone through the exchange of some coin. As many have pointed out already, Plasmids, which offer abilities similar to Vigors, were key to Rapture's downfall in the original game, yet somehow, in Columbia, the disruptive potential of, what is essentially, magic with murderous applications has been neutered somehow... by something. Vigors are another piece of Infinite's puzzle which just doesn't fit. 

Elizabeth cares not for plot when there's coins to be found.

 All of this brings us to the emotive crutch of Infinite's story, Elizabeth. Elizabeth is beautiful. She has Anime eyes and she throws you ammo and first aid kits and money and she has feelings too, but her duties on the battlefield and in general exploration come into conflict with her role in the story. Upon learning some of her and Booker's respective sordid personal histories, she's driven to collect more curiosities to interrupt what should be moving moments. Earth-shattering developments are cheapened by the heroine's compulsion to find useful shit. Her expression and mood change by the second and are more unpredictable than her movements, which see her teleporting ahead, behind, generally anywhere other than she's needed to be for the conversation at hand to work as intended. Elizabeth is your companion for most of the game, but she's never really there.  

So, I'm sure after reading this you could be under the impression that I didn't enjoy my time in Columbia. That's not true, as I must have been having enough fun with it to want to finish it twice; the second run on 1999 mode - the game's highest difficulty setting. I'd go as far to say that I liked BioShock Infinite, but no amount of crazy superpowers and sniper fights are going to make up for the fact that the story and setting failed to live up to the lofty standards set by my first trip to Rapture. There's a lot of problems, themes and important tidbits that are glossed over, while other explosive narrative developments are stifled by mechanical conveniences. If you're looking to kick ass and chew literal shitloads of food, this is the game for you. If you're looking for the evolution of the elusive Thinking Man's Shooter, you'll be left wanting. Recommended, but be sure to check your expectations at the lighthouse.