Sunday, January 19, 2014

Yet Another Roundup

Just realized I didn't write nearly enough about video games in my last post! So, here they are!

I recently received the Season Pass for BioShock Infinite, which will eventually include all the DLC released for the game. The first DLC entry, Clash in the Clouds, is apparently a combat-oriented expansion without original story, so I haven't been very interested in pursuing it. The next one, though, is the first entry of Burial at Sea, which has intrigued me quite a bit.

MINI SPOILERS (for Burial at Sea and all other BioShock games)

I'd been curious from the beginning about exactly how they would expand the game, since Infinite seemed to end so definitively. They'd opened up a multiple-universes plot, which can provide an infinite number of possible additions, but then neatly closed it as well. I think we still haven't figured out exactly how the events of Burial at Sea can be reconciled to the ending of Infinite, but I'm currently operating on the assumption that it occurs "before" the ending of Infinite (while recognizing that temporal words like "before" are very difficult to adapt to stories that include time travel and interdimensional travel).

The game takes place in a parallel universe to Infinite, and I think it's the first time we've received direct confirmation that BioShock 1/2 and BioShock Infinite occur in the same multiverse. You play as an alternate-universe version of Booker DeWitt, the protagonist of Infinite, but the game is set in Rapture, the location of the first two games.

I quite enjoyed the setting of the expansion. From a pure design perspective, Rapture isn't as delightful as Columbia, but it was great to see the Rapture vision elevated to the level of technical superiority that Infinite accomplished: the graphics look terrific, with Rapture's familiarity married to Infinite's polish.

I was also pretty impressed that they managed to revert to so much of the feel of the first two games while using Infinite's engine. Granted, it isn't that difficult to do so: Plasmids are basically the same as Vigors, etc. Still, there were a lot of things that felt like fundamental engine mechanics that turned out to be quite flexible. For example, in Infinite you could only physically carry two guns at a time, and would need to discard one if you wanted another. Burial at Sea returns to the previous system, where you can carry all weapons at once. This also involves some rebalancing: with a larger arsenal at your disposal, they can get away with providing far less ammo for each weapon type, forcing you to switch between weapons regularly, unlike in Infinite, where you could generally focus on mastering two weapons.

Irrational Games seems to have listened to some of the complaints that folks like me keep making about their (generally excellent) games, and I feel like they tried to address them, with varying degrees of success. First of all, there's a really nice long-ish stretch near the start of the game where you're free to wander around and enjoy the atmosphere in Rapture. It was great to participate in Rapture before the fall, when it was at the peak of its powers. There's a lot of conversations to eavesdrop on and culture to observe. Maybe it's because I'm so fresh from Infinite, but I kept comparing the two societies, and while both are kind of awful, I found Rapture's much more palatable. Granted, it's an objectivist fantasy realm where money rules absolutely: but on the plus side, it doesn't seem to have much room for racism or bigotry. If a black woman or a gay man seizes a fortune, all of Rapture will defend them against the parasite who would seek to steal from them.

On the more negative side, I feel like they tried to emphasize stealth elements more in the expansion, and really failed. Or maybe just I failed, but still. There's a huge shortage of ammo, and limited EVE, so several fights will come down to sky-strikes or melee attacks. You can one-shot melee an enemy if you sneak up on them from behind. Maybe I'm just spoiled by the incredible stealth system in The Last of Us, but I found BaS's stealth mechanics very frustrating. There are too few hiding places, you move too slowly while in stealth, enemies can see you from far away, everyone is alerted at once when you're spotted, and enemies don't seem to drop off of alert status once they start looking for you. I could occasionally knock out a couple of splicers, but most often someone would turn around at the wrong time, and since there's no cover around I'd be immediately spotted, and lose a ton of health while trying to quickly take them down.

While I'm complaining, the game was also shockingly glitchy for an expansion that spent this long in development. At one point I lost twenty minutes of progress due to an eternally spinning airlock; some research revealed that this is an issue which has been around since the game first came out, is present on all platforms, and still hasn't been fixed. That was frustrating. Several friendly NPC character models have weird bugs as well. The funniest and most disturbing was Elizabeth: sometimes, her skirt gets hiked way up to her hip, so you can see her entire leg, including the part that's just missing from the knee on up.

I still haven't totally grokked what Elizabeth is doing here. She seems to be one of the Columbia versions who has traveled through a tear into the Rapture dimension. She isn't familiar with anything about Rapture, but I also don't think that she's the same Elizabeth as from Infinite. She has a much more mature, femme fatale aspect to her. On a mechanical level, she seemed to be much stingier with health and ammo than in Infinite, and much more likely to get in my way. She's very cryptic, and your relationship with her in BaS seems to be about the opposite as it was in Infinite, when she was the naive innocent child and you were the worldly-wise man who knew what was going on.

A few other random thoughts:

It was fun to see Sander Cohen again. He's one of the weirdest, most messed-up characters in that universe, and his sequence in the original BioShock is probably the part I remember most vividly, apart from the very end. This seemed like an even less sympathetic version that we saw here, but that's because it was even more creepy and interesting.

I'm a bit curious whether this is the same Rapture as in the original BioShock games. I initially thought not: besides Booker's presence, there's also some news floating around about Fontaine and Brigid Tenanbaum that made me think we might be seeing an alternate version, where Rapture didn't fall but something else would happen. Late in the game, though, you start to see some Atlas posters, which makes me think it's more likely that we are in the original universe.

MEGA SPOILERS for Burial at Sea

Elizabeth mentions a few times that she's in "debt collection", and is seeking your help in order to pay back an old debt. I'd assumed that this meant that, after she killed off all the Booker/Comstock characters at the end of Infinite, she felt pity for what she had done, and decided to find alternate versions of them that she could help: perhaps ones from universes so different that they had never fought at Wounded Knee. By making their lives better, she may have hoped that she could atone for what she had to do.

But, given the very end, that doesn't seem to be the case at all. Her quest is one of vengeance, and she's clearly out to "get" Booker. It seems like there are actually multiple pairs of universes where a Booker sells a child to the Comstock in another universe. In this one as in the Infinite one, Booker changed his mind and tried to reclaim the baby; unlike the Infinite one, he pulled Anna just a little further through the portal, and ended up killing her instead of cutting her finger. Elizabeth is here to punish him for that act. (The Luteces come by as well, which was fantastic; I love that couple.)

It's all very clearly cliffhanger-y, and I'm awfully curious what will happen in Part 2. Will Booker be recreated as a Big Daddy? Will we play as Elizabeth as she hunts down and murders all remaining Bookers in the multiverse? Can Rapture be saved? 


If you're a fan of any of the BioShock games, it's worth picking up Burial at Sea, though you might want to wait until Part 2 comes out so you can play straight through. The game mechanics are pretty similar to what you'll find in the original games and Infinite, but there's some nice expansion to the lore that fans should appreciate.

Now, for a couple of fantasy game updates:

I finished my Arendel Phaedra game in FfH2. I'd been angling for a religious victory, but I could never convince Arturus Thorne to grant Open Borders, so despite spreading the Fellowship everywhere else I just couldn't quite get over the 80% level. For a while I'd thought that I'd be able to use Inquisitors to bring down other religions and thus raise Fellowship's percentage; but while I could do this in other countries with Fellowship as their state religion, I apparently couldn't do it in non-Fellowship states. Which I guess makes sense.

Oh! This was kind of fun. I'd been running some hunters/rangers since the start of my game, and gradually built up a proper military over several centuries: starting when killing Orthus and his barbarians, adding a couple of heroes, then expanding to full strength when I started my war against Jonas, at which point I added the Baron and started breeding werewolves. I then split the army in two, with the recon units and my national heroes preparing for a long fight against Acheron the Red Dragon, while my werewolf horde swung north and across the ocean to join in the fight against Alexis. Once again, I encountered something that's potential in every game in FfH2, but I've never seen until now: an epic war between vampires and werewolves.

Not every game has the Calabim. Sometimes nobody will build Baron duin Halfmoon, or he will die before establishing lycanthropy. Even if both are present, it's possible that they'll be on the same side, or never meet. Still, at least once, the randomness of procedurally generated content aligned with popular perceptions of mass culture, and we were treated to an epic struggle between the implacable foes of vampires and werewolves. (Thanks to my Command promotions on Priests of Leaves, I was even able to persuade a few vampires to turn from their evil ways, and join the slightly-less-evil ways of my werewolf horde.)

After my two wars with Jonas and Alexis, I never needed to go to war again. For a little while I was worried that Varn would declare war on me, since he'd contact me every ten years to demand that I switch to Empyrean. Now, I totally get why he would be passionate about this - in the lore, Varn is practically synonymous with that faith - but it seems pretty unfair that they would keep piling on diplomatic penalties, plus it seems weird that I never even saw the option to demand he convert to Fellowship (despite it being present in his cities and my own state religion). Still, he was delighted to have me as a fellow Overcouncil member, and we never came to blows. (He did declare war on Cassiel of the Grigori, which led to an interesting war to spectate. I was rather relieved that neither side demanded I join with them or cut off ties with the other.

Aaaaaanyways... since straight-up religion wasn't an option. I decided to go for an Altar victory, which I've previously pursued but never achieved. There are some similarities between the Altar and the Tower victories, since both require you to build multiple prerequisite wonders and then a capstone project. However, the early Altar pieces all must be built by Great Prophets, so it was a great project to do with a Great Person factory like me.

I'd thought that the Altar would be like the Tower and that all the world world declare war on me once I started construction. I pulled my army back to my core cities, and nervously hoped that at least my vassals would stand by me. Fortunately, construction commenced without any incident. I'm guessing that this is a scripting difference: sure, most of the world loved me, but even if public opinion was a factor, I'd have expected Arturus at least to declare war if it was a pretext.

I'd been prepared from my Tower of Mastery victory, and had started stockpiling vaults of gold once I decided to shoot for the Altar. So, it wasn't terribly long before I could afford to rush production, then exalt in the approval of all of Erebus as we joined the Gods.

Yay! This was the highest normalized score I've received, at least on this partition. (I had a long run of several years of FfH2 on my Linux partition under WINE.) I think it might be time to bump up from Prince to King. And Andrew keeps trying to convince me to play a Marathon game (apparently not realizing that, if I did that, I'd never get around to Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition.) There's still a lot left to experience. An infinite amount, really.

From the complex to the simple: I also beat Heroes of Dragon Age. Of course, "beat" is a tricky concept for games like these, since they're designed to keep you playing and spending money forever. I'd set myself a fairly straightforward objective: beat all of the single-player maps. I was happy to have done it without ever springing for a premium pack or gems.

My end team was the Black-aligned lineup I mentioned before: Merrill and a Level IV Desire Demon in the back, Grey Wardens Duncan and Carver (II) in the front, with an Inferno Golem towering over us all. I started to have the makings of decent Red and White teams near the end, with Fenris, Yavana, and Anders all making strong entries. Still, it would have taken forever to level them up. I sometimes rotated them in while grinding challenge nodes, but it was my Black team that eventually carried us to victory. It's a bit of a shame; there's actually some interesting strategies to consider in the game, and I would have enjoyed playing a version that focused more on squad composition than on level. As it stands, though, a high-leveled squad will virtually always outperform a well-designed squad. (Though there are still a few niche cases where that isn't strictly true. For example, a Ferelden Knight is fantastic in the Challenge maps against a single high-level opponent, regardless of how low his level.)

All in all, it was a decently fun way to waste some time. The biggest downside is that, given the deliberately open-ended design of the game, there isn't much of a sense of closure or catharsis at the end. It would have been really nice to get a closing video as nice as the opener, or even some text. I don't think that would have been easy to do, though... the game is really all about disconnected "what if?" scenarios, so there isn't any through-line to follow or big plot to resolve.

On a more positive note, I'm partway through playing Republique, a new mobile stealth game. I'd picked it up before the holidays, planning to play it on the airplane. It's been really good so far. The subject matter feels very au currant; the project started before Snowden's revelation of NSA abuses, and I feel like they probably updated the content to emphasize the surveillance state aspect a bit more.

There's a lot I like about it so far. It's a mobile game, but looks fantastic on my tablet. It has terrific voice acting, including Jennifer Hale doing a wonderful Eastern European accent. They managed to make the controls simple without making the game feel dumbed-down. It's much more about strategy than about reflexes, although events do play out in real-time and you definitely get some pressure when trying to avoid bad guys. The puzzles are generally well-designed, except for one frustrating one that I got stuck on for a long time.

The overall game design is good, too. I feel like I'm on kind of a roll now, after BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us and now Republique, in protecting young females from dangerous situations. Instead of controlling an on-screen avatar as guardian, though, this time you are... well, you, kind of. You're someone looking at a screen and tapping controls in order to guide the woman to safety. The moments of direct address can sometimes feel a little uncanny: am I me? Or am I a character?

Republique was a Kickstarted project. I didn't participate in it, but am always really happy to see such projects succeed, particularly for video games, which tend to have much higher budgets, expectations, and risks than other Kickstarter projects. One of the rewards for this was apparently to become a character in the game, so there are a lot of times when you can identify a guard and see their name, country of origin, and some personal quirks (including a rap sheet) along with a Kickstarter badge. Cool! I'm a big fan of being immortalized, even if it's a few words buried deep within a game.

This is the first episode of the game; I haven't beaten it yet, but I feel like I'm close. I'll probably pick up the remainders as they're released, though I'm likely to continue to time my purchases to coincide with long plane trips or other periods where I'll have my tablet and no Internet connection. It's a fun game and a great way to pass time, but so far hasn't been compelling enough to preempt the many, many other games that I want to play.

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