Saturday, April 20, 2013

Bioshock Infinite Review

The Lighthouse

     Bioshock Infinite is a wonderful, beautiful, finely crafted masterpiece of a game. That may come across as hyperbole, but it isn't. The bottom line is that Bioshock Infinite raises the bar for what games can be. It shows that the medium can be more than mindless, bland shooters that look and feel nearly identical to one another. Everything about this game raises it above the pack. Its world building and artistic design are miles ahead of what anyone else is doing in the genre. Its sound design and music go beyond simple ambiance to reinforce the narrative, cement the player in the world and most importantly, is so damn good as to stand on it's own. And the story is a touching journey of a broken man perfectly wrapped together in themes of religion, patriotism, obligation, and the limits of reality.

    Everything about this world pops. The introduction to the floating city of Columbia, the games setting, takes place during a fair. We are exposed to this society during one of it's most colorful and joyous occasions, while its darker prejudices are swept away in the shadows. Posters and displays perfectly echo the time period as simple carnival games not only endear us to the town and its people, but serve as a brilliant tutorial that is both hidden and optional. The game's operators call to the player to test their skills and destroy the wooden representations of the evil Vox Populi as an a cappella group sings from a floating barge. Simply walking around in the world made me feel like a kid in an amusement park. I am not the kind of person that smiles easily, but walking around in this wonderful land of early Americana gave me no choice in the matter. I couldn't help but stop and look around at the shop displays, posters and fine detail that marks ever corner of this world. The full realization of this game's world building serves not only as an example to every other developer out there, but creators in any medium.

    The themes goes beyond simple window dressing, they permeate every fabric of the society, from the songs of playing children, to a store run on the honor system in a religiously motivated society. On the surface is a world of affluent, god fearing whites of proper heritage. Underneath is a land of segregated bathrooms, servants and Irish factory workers. One of the most memorable moments for me was walking through the squalor of the under city. I stopped and listened as a poor black woman sat on a stage used for prisoner stocks. She sat on the edge and bellowed out a beautiful and haunting version of CCR's Fortunate Son that is bound to stick with me for quite some time. The slight touches of futuristic technology and tears in the fabric of space time create wonders that leave the player breathless, such as mechanical horses, a robotic chaingun wielding George Washington and Cyndi Lauper's girls just wanna have fun being pumped through an old gramophone. Every part of this game leaves and impression on the player, from  the stark contrast between the bathrooms of whites and blacks, to the sounds of Chopin warped through loud speakers of the oppressed workers of Fink Industries.

Bring Us The Girl and Wipe Away The Debt

    The original Bioshock was known for its incredible story of a man washed up on a lighthouse, sent below the waves to a magical city under the city that had been ravaged in a civil war by the very people who built it. In the original the player was a voiceless puppet, proceeding through the game at the behest of Atlas with no voice of their own. Bishock Infinite bucks the trend of the silent protagonist in casting the player in the shoes of Booker DeWitt. A washed up veteran who's seen better days. The mission to wipe away his debt takes him to a lighthouse where the atheist is launched into the clouds. Instead of finding God, he finds himself surrounded by the religious iconography of a madman and is branded with the label of false prophet. While the city's propaganda proclaims itself a paradise in the sky, Booker sees clear signs of racism that was all too recently an everyday occurrence in America. While the town's people speak of an economic land of plenty, Booker witnesses the starving poor and workers at Fink's Industries forced to bid in an auction for jobs, not for how much they will do the job for, but in how fast they can do it.

    Having Booker DeWitt as an actual character, as opposed to a silent protagonist allows for a commentary on the events, as opposed to the player quietly moving between each vignette. Booker feels like a real character in a real situation, as opposed to a floating camera along for the ride. While the game does offer limited choice, in having the main character be an actual person it leads to a great consistency in their actions and stronger impact on the narrative. I saw this while playing Sleeping Dogs as well, and hope it catches on.

Damsel in Distress

    The game's narrative revolves around Booker rescuing a girl locked away in a tower, and bringing her back to his client in New York. The idea of a game long escort mission left me with a sense of dread, but I'm glad to report that Bioshock handles this quite well.

    When you first meet Elizabeth, your head is swirling from all the things you observed in Columbia so far and the rumors of the "lamb" and her place in society. Instead of finding some defenseless fairy tell princess, you find an actual person with her own desires and personality.  Irrational made a very smart decision in never forcing you to protect her. Elizabeth is immune in combat, can never be hurt and actively aids the player. Both in bringing in allies and supplies through "tears" and in throwing Booker ammo and other supplies in combat. Through the story Elizabeth is elevated from a simple errand to a partner, and eventually into an individual agent with goals and desires that separates her from and in some ways conflicts with Booker's.

    Most importantly, she's a real person. A fully realized character that the player feels increasingly attached to during the adventure. She serves not only as a model for a strong female in games, but as a wonderful supporting character that is every bit the hero in her own right, as opposed to be constantly downgraded to the level of sidekick for the player's enjoyment.

More To Life Than Carrying A Gun

    What's most telling to me about Bioshock Infinite is we're at the end of the review I haven't even brought up the shooting, Infinite's primary combat feature. The shooting, whether with guns or vigors is fun, and tighter than in the original Bioshock. But really, it's the least interesting part of the game. And really, how often do we say that? Normally the combat is just the biggest selling point, it's the only selling point. The music, the art direction, plot and world building are all secondary. A coat of paint to make the core experience more compelling.

    This is what makes Bioshock Infinite more than a good game, more than a great game. Every aspect is of the highest caliber. No one part stands above the rest. In most games the combat and graphics may be great, but the music and plot lacking. Or the parts may be really good individually, but disjointed. Bishock Infinite not only maintains the highest quality in its components, but weaves them together masterfully into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It is not only one of my favorite games in the past year, it is one of my favorites for this generation. My only regret was this I didn't get to spend more time in its world, more time exploring Columbia and its people. This is one game I wouldn't mind seeing a sequel too.

    If you decide to pick up this game, and you should, take your time with it. Walks around and smell the roses. Read the posters and listen to the town folk's dialogue. Rushing past it would cause you to miss one of the finest crafted world's in all of gaming.

I played Bioshock Infinite on a PS3.

I'd like to make a special thanks to my Brother, who got me Infinite for my birthday.

You can follow me on twitter: @MadnessSerenade

Or leave a comment below.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Sleeping Dogs Review

Troubled Past

    Sleeping Dogs, released in August of 2012 began its life as the third game in the True Crime series. For those who don't remember, True Crime was a Grand Theft Auto clone released in the last generation with the twist that you played a cop as opposed to a low life criminal. From what I recall True Crime: Streets of L.A. (the first in the series) was decent, but mostly forgettable. The sequel, set in New York did poorly, and left the franchise in much need of a reboot. This was supposed to be True Crime: Hong Kong. The project was canceled by Activision - Blizzard in 2011 only to be saved by Square Enix who swooped and renamed it Sleeping Dogs.

Just Another Clone?

    The True Crime series was blatant rip off of the GTA open world style adding the gimmick of being a cop to attempt to give some semblance of difference. But that was way back in 2003, now the open world style has progressed beyond the standard GTA clone into a genre of its own with games like Saints Row on one side and Infamous or Prototype on the other.

    Open world games have become pretty popular, offering the player the chance to explore freely and the promise of a large experience with lots of hours of content. With so many games in this space, including the Mafia series and games like L.A. Noire, one has to worry about more than the comparisons to GTA. They have to carve out their own space in an increasingly crowded genre.

A World Away

    This is what makes the decision to base the world in Hong Kong so smart. The open world genre, and most of gaming for that matter is full of western influences. Modern games take place in New York or L.A. Fantasy games are set in European medieval worlds. Even futuristic sci-fi shooters show strong western influence. In the rare case a game is set somewhere else, such as the middle east in military shooters, it's done from the view point of westerners. Setting the game in Hong Kong gives us the chance to see something fresh. A rich culture too rarely explored, and customs different than many westerns are used to. Not to mention the kick I got as an American driving on the wrong side of the road.

    In a lot of ways the game straddles these two world of east and west, having a main character that was born and raised in Hong Kong but lived for a long time in the states. The setting of Hong Kong also gives a strong excuse for the amount of English in the game due to its history of occupation and foreign influence. While the story they chose to go with could have easily been set in another setting with the changing of a few names, I really enjoyed the bold decision of setting the game far away from more conventional choices. It helped give the game an identity that former titles in the series lacked.


    Any one who's played an open world game in the style of GTA will be right at home with Sleeping Dogs. Missions are given through beacons identified on the map and often revolve around driving and combat. Side missions litter the island in the standard side quest/racing/relation ships format with lots of collectables to find along the way.

    Missions are split into to two general categories, with one half advancing Detective Shen's cover with the triad, and the other has Shen helping fellow Officer Teng close cases. During each mission actions cause Shen to gain triad points for rough actions and lose police points for damaging property or hurting innocent bystanders. These points, translated into XP allow Shen to level up and unlock various abilities and perks. The also add in a free running element and the ability to "action hijack" that is hijack a one vehicle from another, but most of this is pretty normal fair.

Don't Hate The Player (or the part where I tell you what I liked)

    So is it good? Yes, to put it simply. But it's not great.

    It took me a while to get drawn into Sleeping Dog's story. While its story hasn't been explored to a great extinct in games, it's well traveled terrain in other mediums. Shen returns to his old neighborhood as an undercover cop to take down the triad. An old friend named Jackie is the stand in wanna-be thug that serves as your entrance into the criminal scene. From the opening moments you see exactly where this story is going. While it tries to throw a few surprises in the mix, they all come across as expected for anyone who's seen one of the many variants of this story before.

    That's okay though. While the plot is predictable and the dialogue often weak, strong voice acting and well developed characters managed to pull me in. Soft handed touches like Shen's paranoia becoming evident in his reports, or the echos from dead friends and foes as he sleeps give depth in what would otherwise be a shallow pond. What begins as a simple gang pissing contest grows into a political game of chicken amongst the leaders of the triad thus side stepping the loss of interest that comes with many of GTA's story lines that focus entirely on a mostly pointless rise to the top.

    Casting the player in the roll of an undercover cop also gives great justification for all those side missions that pop up. In most open world games, and seemingly every GTA, a player needs money or has to impress someone or there is some other flimsy excuse given to have the player learn to race. This serves as the introduction to the mission type and opens up the side missions for the player. While tasking our undercover detective with racing in an effort to learn more about illegal racing rings is just as flimsy, it at least makes sense with the character and story being told.

    Through the story enemies becomes friends and friends enemies, but strong personalities from the characters help the choices they make feel real, and help the player connect to the world they are trying to infiltrate. Detective Shen finds himself drawn into the struggles of the people he's trying to undermine, and you as player find yourself caring right along with him.

    This is added to by the developer crafting a single story through the game. Unlike a lot of recent titles that arbitrarily force you to choose between two paths (see Far Cry 3) Sleeping Dogs has a single narrative throughout (with a fantastic use of the bookend trope). There is limited player choice in some scenes, but overall the player is directed through a single story. This allows for a stronger central character and a satisfying conclusion to their journey, as opposed to diluting the waters across two streams.

    The voice acting is great, bringing in well known actors including Emma Stone, Lucy Liu, Tom Wilkinson and Kelly Hu. Will Yun Lee does a great job in the leading roll as Shen as does Edison Chen, who plays Jackie, the childhood friend.

    The game won't blow any one away graphically, thanks in large part to an old console generation. The tired textures are saved by good design and use of lighting. The slums of Hong Kong tower above the player, and your clothes actually look wet when it's raining in addition to  puddles forming on the streets.

    Tiny things add to the experience. Allowing you to walk or drive while reading the reports on your phone or kick starting a motorcycle help the world feel alive. Hell, when getting a car from the parking garage the attendant puts away his newspaper before addressing you.These simple, but subtle touches bring the world alive in a way that shiny graphics never could.

Hate the Game (The part where I nag about the things I didn't)

    But as I said, the game isn't great. And while it's many of the games smaller touches that help elevate it from being just another clone, it's also the little things that drag it down from Mount Olympus into the lands of mortals.

    While the combat is fun throughout the game, featuring a mostly hand to hand system very similar to the Batman Arkham games or Assassin's Creed, it lacks those game's polish. Especially Batman's. The game attempts to go for the same camera and sounds tricks that the Arkham games employ to add a visceral feeling to the combat, but slightly miss the mark. They achieve the martial arts action movie feeling they're going for, but slight latencies in attacks and misfired combos left me wondering if it was me, my controller, or the game causing me to take an enemy's punch. I never had that problem with the Bat.

    Gunplay is loose, which is not uncommon for the genre, but could have been tighter. Having the two combat systems also causes the problem of areas being separated into binary sections of hand to hand combat and gunplay. I would have loved for there to be a system that incorporated the two elements together, though I admit I don't know how they would have done this.

    Free running is nice, but again is generally limited to pre defined paths and for some reason won't allow you to climb up ramps, forcing you to find their front (especially troubling when swimming.)

    Also, you have a phone and there are cabs in the game that allow fast travel, but no way to call cabs. True, you get the ability later in the game to have a valet deliver a car to you anywhere in the city, but it still baffles me how they left out the option of calling a cab when both elements are in the game.

    The mini-games. My god the mini-games. This game has all of them. Hacking? It's in there. Lock picking? Yep, has that too. How about a combination lock game, karaoke, planting bugs and triangulating phone calls? All in there. That's what, six mini games? Often thrown at you for little reason and with zero explanation out side of the prompts given to you at the time. Don't worry though, cause they are all mind numbingly, tediously easy. Hacking is a simple game with one optimal solution that anyone should be able to realize with a little logic. The combination locks tell you their combination simply by turning a dial. The others follow in similar ways making them more of a chore than an enjoyment. Oh, and there's poker. I forgot about poker. And drug busts, where you point a camera at a high lighted enemy and press a button. Way too many mini-games.

    And quick time events. This game loves quick time events. And for the life of me I can't figure out why, because there is no challenge to them. Zero. Some take place in combat, and these actually work well. If a fat guy grabs you from behind you can press X (the attack button) to kick people in front of you or Y (the counter button) to escape. These work well as they mirror their same actions in combat. Though for some reason B (grapple) allows you to roll out of the way when the fat guy is trying to stomp your face.

    What makes less sense is when you jump from one car to another and have to suddenly press Y to "recover," that is, to prevent your dumbass from falling off the moving vehicle. These happen randomly but a simple press of the Y button causes you to hang on. You're given ample time for this so there's never any danger. Why have it in the game at all? Or the "smooth talking." At certain points in a mission Shen is tasked with persuading his way past a guard or other human shaped obstacle. Once again all the player has to do it wait until the button prompt appears on screen and press it. No effort required. During the game I died in combat, I lost races and failed missions. Never, not once in the whole game, did I fall off a car or fail a "smooth talking" segment. Come to think of it, I don't even know if you actually fall off the car when failing to press Y, as it never happened. All they end up doing is padding the run time of the game, and highlighting how shallow the gameplay can be.

    Face Meter. The game has it. It's a meter that fills up in combat for doing combos and not getting hit. When it fills all the way some enemies back away in fear from you. And that's pretty much it. You can unlock some abilities for it by doing side quests that earn you face points, but the whole thing is pretty pointless. It feels tacked on, as if the developers put it in there because they thought they had too. A simple addition of special abilities or being invincible for a short time would have helped justify it's existence.

    Which brings me to the points. At first the points make sense. The character, Detective Shen, is divided between trying to be true to the law and being a legitimate criminal to avoid the suspicions of those he seeks to stop. Beat the crap out of people or damage things and the bad guys like you. Hurt innocents and the cops don't. Simple, logical, fine.

    Problem is it breaks down pretty damn fast. It has zero implication on the narrative and only serves to unlock certain abilities. The triad meter or points have to be earned, while Shen starts a mission with a full cop meter and points that can only be lost, rarely challenging the player and often penalizing him. These games use random engines for things like pedestrians, often putting the player in situations where innocents will get run over, and penalizing the player for no reason. Speaking of killing people, damaging a street sign will cost you five points. Kill an innocent person? Fifteen. You could kill a half dozen innocent people and still get cop points for the mission. You can also get penalized cop points for "clumsiness" which happens you mess up a jump while free running. I would love for someone to explain to me how that makes any sense. The whole system was in need of a major reworking. It's my guess that it was left in as a hold over from the True crime series and justify the unlocking of abilities. I would highly suggest they go back to the drawing board for this mechanic in a sequel.


    The game also has collectables. Probably because having an open world game without collectables is against the gaming Geneva Conventions or something. Health shrines scattered about the world serve as nice scenery and activating five of them give the player a health boost. Lockboxes are the main collectable and have money, clothing and occasionally weapons inside. Most are also guarded by gangsters, which are fun to beat up.

    My favorite however are the Jade Statues. Shen finds these throughout the game and can return them to his old martial arts instructor, who will then teach him moves and combos. Each time the player delivers a statue they are rewarded with a short conversation between Shen and his former Master. I really enjoyed these, and felt they added to Shen's character.

    To me, the collectables seem to sum up everything that works well and poorly within the game. The health shrines are a smart use of an old convention. Tasking the player with finding them but also providing an actual gameplay benefit with a good aesthetic bonus. The lock boxes are standard fare with a pointless mini-game and covered with a few bad guys to give the appearance of depth. And then we have the Jade Statues, again something that reinforces the game's aesthetic,  but also one that adds to the narrative and reinforces the game central theme of being torn between worlds, both in the complexities of the past, the opportunities of the future, and the tough choices of the present.


    Sleeping Dogs wasn't a blip on my radar. I had zero interest in this game when I saw the trailers for it. I only picked it up based on the positive buzz of those that had played it. While it isn't a great, triple A title, it is a solid second tier game. If you see it on a steam sale or in the bargain bin for twenty bucks, you will defiantly get your money's worth, but I have reservations at recommending it at the full sixty buck price tag. I enjoyed the game a lot, more for its soul and what it's trying to do than for what it actually did and can't wait to see what they do with a sequel.

I played Sleeping Dogs on PC using a controller.

You can follow me on Twitter: @MadnessSerenade

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