Monthly Archives: November 2013

BioShock 2

B

Rescue your daughter from the ruins of Rapture.

PC Release: February 9, 2010

By Ian Coppock

I may have suffered a slight lapse in professionalism with my review of Yar’s Revenge, but I think part of the issue was going from my favorite game to one of the worst I’ve ever played. No descent that steep is going to be pretty, but then again, I talked about pretty much all there was to Yar’s Revenge. To balance myself out, I’ve decided to return to the setting of my favorite game with its sequel, BioShock 2.

____________________

As sequels often go, BioShock 2 is a bit of a sophomore slump. Actually, that’s a misnomer, because BioShock creator Ken Levine had nothing to do with this title. On its own, the game is a fantastic and intricate first-person shooter, but it can’t not be compared to its predecessor, in which case several shortfalls arise. Allow me to elaborate.

BioShock 2 takes place in 1968, eight years after the first game. Having collapsed into a wonderdrug-fueled anarchy, Rapture is all but destroyed. In the first game, you learned that the city’s inhabitants became hooked on Plasmids, superpower drugs that change your DNA. The resultant splicing turned the populace into mutant freaks, and the city tore itself apart.

Eight years on, Rapture has only gotten worse.

Eight years on, Rapture has only gotten worse.

The first game also introduced the Little Sisters and the Big Daddies; the Sisters are brainwashed little girls trained to gather Plasmid juice from corpses, and the Big Daddies are their golem-like protectors, sealed away inside armored diving suits. Your player character, Subject Delta, is a Big Daddy. Reactivated after 10 years’ dormancy by a mysterious voice on the radio, Delta stumbles into action.

Subject Delta is the protagonist of BioShock 2.

Subject Delta is the protagonist of BioShock 2.

Delta learns that in the eight years since Rapture’s collapse, the city has been taken over by Sofia Lamb, a smarmy psychiatrist who wants to turn Rapture into Andrew Ryan’s sworn enemy: a spiritual-communist utopia. Lamb is holding Delta’s former little sister Eleanor hostage, and Delta must rescue her if the two hope to escape Rapture alive. As it turns out, Eleanor is Sofia Lamb’s biological daughter, and the subject of the doctor’s top-secret experiment. Eleanor and Delta are bonded together from their time as a Daddy-Sister pair; if one dies, so does the other, hastening Delta’s rescue.

As with BioShock‘s Jack, Delta is a silent protagonist, but he’ll still emit the whale-like roars and hums all Big Daddies do. BioShock 2 also features a diverse cast of NPCs who will hinder or help your attempt to rescue Eleanor, including quirky business tycoon August Sinclair, who wants to sell Rapture’s tech on the surface and live like a king. Delta also encounters Brigid Tenanbaum, the repentant scientist from the first game, as well as a jaded jazz singer, a cowardly news reporter, and a mad scientist.

Sinclair was once a titan of industry in Rapture. He's managed to stay alive for eight years and hopes to escape from Rapture.

Sinclair was once a titan of industry in Rapture. He’s managed to stay alive for eight years and hopes to escape from Rapture.

BioShock 2‘s premise is certainly epic enough, but a closer examination of the game reveals a few shortfalls and inconsistencies. Player character Subject Delta is cast as the prototype of all Big Daddies, yet he can use Plasmids and is significantly more agile than his fellows. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for the prototype to be more advanced than the… um… “type”, I guess we’ll call it.

There’s a gameplay inconsistency to this conundrum as well. Because Big Daddies are essentially walking tanks with a bad temper, I was expecting to control a colossus. Delta feels more like a tin can; even with armor upgrades, it takes only a few hits for your health to be in critical danger. Jack was sturdier than this, and his only armor was a sweater vest. What the hell?

Delta's weapons and powers are formidable, but his health is not. This also made some parts of the game very challenging, especially when you go up against other Big Daddies.

Delta’s weapons and powers are formidable, but his health is not. This also made some parts of the game very challenging, especially when you go up against other Big Daddies.

As with BioShock, your story’s outcome depends on how you treat the Little Sisters. The cool thing is that, upon killing the Big Daddies, you can take a Little Sister as your own and have her gather Plasmid power for you.

So long as you can defeat the waves of Splicers coming after you, that is. You can then kill the Sister for more juice or free her from her torment.

D'aww... I think...

D’aww… I think…

BioShock 2‘s level design lacks the intense atmosphere and detail of the first game. Whereas Rapture once felt inviting and intriguing, this game’s rendition of the fallen city just feels tired. Over and over you’ll be expected to explore wide open areas that are scant on detail, featuring lots of floor space with comparatively few features. There are a few really awesome sections where you get to go outside and traverse the ocean floor, and these areas had a lot to look at.

The city interior, though, was noticeably less alive than in BioShock. There was one incredibly awesome level in which the sea life and art deco architecture had fused into an alien-like landscape. A heavier presence of this motif would have made the game more interesting.

Rapture felt artistically washed out and dead in BioShock 2. I know that the city possesses these qualities, but so did the first one, and that game felt alive.

Rapture felt artistically washed out and dead in BioShock 2. I know that the city possesses these qualities, but so did the first one, and that game felt alive.

While we’re on the subject of detail, I felt that the city of Rapture was way too intact for eight years of war, leaks, and chaos. The game’s initial areas are in a state of utter decay, but the game gradually gives way to fully-lit, clean areas. It broke immersion quite readily, because the game can’t seem to decide between decay and cleanliness.

I might have bought it if this was Rapture after, say, three years of decay. On top of that, there were only corpses and no skeletons. That right there is the pettiest gripe I’ve ever indulged, but corpses don’t stay intact for eight years. I notice these things. It is my curse.

You expect me to believe that this place has suffered absolutely NO wear and tear after eight years of collapse?

You expect me to believe that this place has suffered absolutely NO wear and tear after eight years of collapse?

The story of BioShock 2 is still worth glimpsing through these problems. Like the first game, BioShock 2 features audio diaries left behind by the citizens of Rapture, who discuss life within the city and interactions with other characters. The game uses this device to bring back Andrew Ryan, and introduce a previously unseen conflict with Sofia Lamb. A few critics call it retconning, but I call it clever. Through audio diaries, Ryan tells tales of a psychiatrist he invited to Rapture, who became one of his greatest nemeses.

While BioShock 2 lacks the philosophical and plot-twist heavyweights of the first game, Sofia Lamb proves a cold, cunning antagonist, who constantly peppers you with conundrums as Andrew Ryan once did. Her devotion to her cause is nothing short of zealous, and, just like Ryan, she sees you as an enemy to good, not just to herself.

Lamb is an insidious antagonist. Like Ryan, her quotes about life and philosophy are beautifully written.

Lamb is an insidious antagonist. Like Ryan, her quotes about life and philosophy are beautifully written.

Because Lamb is Eleanor’s actual mother, and Delta her “father”, the two’s score is much more personal than that between Jack and Andrew Ryan. To usher in the city’s new age of communist utopia, Lamb is in charge of the Rapture Family, a cult of splicers who revere Eleanor as the Lamb of God (I see what you did there, 2K) and Delta as a demon.

While Subject Delta is not the most interesting character I’ve ever played, he’s certainly the most tragic. Big Daddies are mostly machine, but their human components were taken from unwilling captives and dissidents. Delta’s own transformation was an accident and against his will, and BioShock 2 contains that horrifically sad element of tragedy throughout the production. He can’t speak, but the recesses of Rapture speak his story for him. I was actually moved to tears at the very end of the game, so I’ll give it credit for that.

B1

Delta was turned into a monster against his will, and is painfully aware of his own plight. This awareness is passed on to you, the player.

The game also gets progressively scarier. Splicers will jump out at you and lights will suddenly go out, forcing you to use your wits. While not true horror, parts of the game were quite suspenseful. Prepare accordingly!

I would also recommend that those of you out to get BioShock 2 consider Minerva’s Den, the story-driven DLC that follows Subject Sigma, a different Big Daddy. Sequestered in what was once Rapture’s heart of computing, Sigma must work to ensure that an old supercomputer reaches the surface. It carries the psychological punch that the main game missed, as well as a few new game mechanics that make for a lot of fun. If you’re getting BioShock 2, give this DLC a go as well.

B2

Minerva’s Den includes a new story and primary weapon. The Lancer, a new type of Big Daddy, also debuts. It’s a fun little expansion.

BioShock 2 feels very different from the first game. It has some design, story and gameplay issues that keep it from living up to the first game, or to BioShock Infinite. Despite some juvenile mistakes in these departments, the game is still quite good. It’s obviously an attempt to cash in on a great IP, but it’s one of those cash-ins that might be worth your time. So, if you have some time and money, give it a go. If not, no big deal. I stand by my urging you to try the first one, though.

____________________

You can buy BioShock 2 here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

BioShock

B3

Explore a darkly beautiful city hidden at the bottom of the ocean.

PC Release: August 21, 2007

By Ian Coppock

Reviewing a game you hate is easy, because you accrue all manner of complaints and then hurl them into a cohesive pile. Reviewing a game that you love? Hard. Not because I love it and want to shield it from harm, but because it’s difficult to convey the primal joy of playing a game like BioShock. It’s one of those things that’s so awesome, only people who’ve played it can really be “in the know”. But, I don’t believe in cliques and I like to think I review for everyone. BioShock is also a magnum opus and one of the greatest video games of all time, so I want to do anything in my power to convince you to play it. I am its all but literal cheerleader.

____________________

BioShock is a first-person shooter, ironic given my railings against that genre. You are Jack, a man traveling across the Atlantic in 1960, whose passenger jet crashes into the ocean and leaves you its sole survivor.

Alone against the sea, Jack spots a nearby lighthouse, swims to it, and enters. What he finds inside is a miracle… or is it?

B10

A random lighthouse, eh?

With Bobby Darin’s Beyond the Sea playing faintly in the background, I entered the submersible and was presented with an intro that, to this day, makes me shake my head in amazement.

The sub takes Jack to Rapture, a glimmering underwater metropolis. As explained in a short video in the sub ride down, the city was founded to escape the tyranny of law and government, and be a place where mankind could fulfill his potential unfettered by the small and the morally conscious.

B12

The view from the sub ride down. GLORIOUS 😀

Though the city appears pristine and sexy from the outside, it’s anything but on the inside. Jack arrives to the city’s welcome center to find its lavish interior in shambles. Lights are out, doors are broken, and strange people are scuttling around in the shadows.

And this happened.

AH! WHOZATT???

AH! WHOZATT???

Jack is saved by Atlas, an Irishman who guides the new arrival via radio. Atlas explains that Rapture was felled months ago by a genetic wonder drug called Plasmids. These drugs, created from strange chemicals found in sea slugs, granted whoever used them superhuman powers… but at a terrible price. Plasmids splice into a user’s DNA, and using too much of them renders him or her a shivering, screeching maniac. This knowledge wasn’t widespread until long after the trend had picked up in Rapture, and now the once great metropolis is a dark dystopia, crawling with the appropriately named splicers.

As Jack, it’s your job to form an alliance with Atlas. If you can help him rescue his family, he’ll get all of you out of the city alive. Easier said than done, as the journey to do so is complicated by leaks, lunatics and occasional jumps.

KILL IT WITH FIRE

KILL IT WITH FIRE

If Jack hopes to make it out of Rapture alive, he has to splice himself up. He wields pistols, rifles, shotguns and other conventional weapons in his right hand, and a variety of superpowers in his left. The Plasmids you find grant you a wide variety of powers, including telekenesis and blasting electricity from your fingertips. The two categories make for innumerable useful combinations.

Plasmids come with a price, though, In addition to the chance he might become a splicer, Jack needs a chemical called ADAM to multiply his powers. That particular substance is found only with what is assuredly the most bizarre pair of characters in gaming: the Little Sisters and the Big Daddies. The Little Sisters are brainwashed girls trained to gather ADAM from splicer corpses, while the Big Daddies are huge, heavily armored brutes that protect the Sisters from would-be splicers, such as yourself. If you can fell the beast, you must choose whether to spare the girl and get less ADAM, or lethally rip more of it out of her stomach and kill her. This is BioShock‘s morality system, and it does affect the game ending you get.

These two make for quite the pair, and pairs of them can be found throughout Rapture. Big Daddies won't attack you on sight, but they'll blow your brains out if you hurt them or their charges.

These two make for quite the pair, and pairs of them can be found throughout Rapture. Big Daddies won’t attack you on sight, but they’ll blow your brains out if you hurt them or their charges.

The more ADAM you gather, the more powers you can buy and upgrade, making BioShock significantly easier. The gameplay has that pleasant Half-Life quality of being simple and easy to pick up, minus a few kinks.

Jack can wield Plasmids or guns, but not both, which can make hard combat sequences frustrating. This problem was nixed in BioShock 2 and BioShock Infinite, but it seemed like an obvious innovation to miss, especially in comparison to the rest of the game’s awesomeness.

B8

This whole “one or the other” thing is a bit goofy.

BioShock isn’t amazing just because of convenient gunplay, though. The gem of the game and indeed the genre is the story. Though you’re a silent protagonist, the characters you meet in this game are the most complicated, multifaceted people I’ve ever seen in a video game. Atlas, your guide, is torn between remaining decent in an indecent town or succumbing to the same harshness that claimed it. Brigid Tenanbaum, the creator and tormentor of the Little Sisters, has grown a conscience and is now desperately seeking to undo her work and repair the lives she destroyed. Backing up these intense profiles is some stellar voice acting, ripe with emotion and indecision. Needless to say, the game’s writing and pacing is spot-on.

But the most complicated and interesting of BioShock‘s characters by far is Andrew Ryan. Ryan is a brilliant businessman and the founder of Rapture, who left the surface world after the nuclear bombs were dropped at the end of World War II. Convinced that the world above has doomed itself to oblivion, Ryan sought to create a paradise where the world’s best and brightest could achieve their potential free of government and moral reprisal. He founded Rapture with few, if any, laws, allowing businesses to make incredible profits and scientists to conduct questionable experiments (such as with Plasmids). Ryan is convinced that there’s more to Jack’s presence than a tragic plane accident, and is determined to destroy you.

B7

Andrew Ryan is essentially a male Ayn Rand (their names’ similarities are not a coincidence).

 Of all the hundreds of antagonists, baddies and big bosses I’ve contended with over the years, Ryan is the one that I didn’t even hate to love. He takes his philosophy to some unacceptable extremes, but said philosophy is hardly rooted in evil. His fears that mankind will annihilate itself and that human beings must be given a chance to achieve their potential definitely have some merit.

For most of the game, he will occasionally radio you with his argumentative points, trying to get you to turn around or renounce what you’re doing in Rapture. Most of the time, I was compelled to listen. BioShock is the only game I’ve played that so relentlessly hits you with complex, engaging philosophical and ethical questions. Ryan is a fascinating and my favorite video game character, whose presence in BioShock is akin to a breakout performance in a TV show.

B6

Despite his antagonism toward you, Ryan is an endearing and fascinating character. He’s also insanely quotable; his most famous line, arguably, is “we all make choices, but in the end, our choices make us.”

Hand-in-hand with an amazing character roster is BioShock‘s atmosphere. Just as Andrew Ryan is my favorite character, Rapture is my favorite video game location. The city is built in a classic art-deco style, and is beautiful to stare at. Every room, closet, and staircase in this visual feast is minutely detailed.

The city combines its opaque gorgeousness with a haunting atmosphere that sucks you in like you would not believe. Jack is left to explore this amazing felled city pretty much alone, and the sound design is a constant reminder. You can hear the ocean just outside the city’s sprawling underwater vistas, and dozens of sounds echoing nearby and far away. It’s an atmosphere that seems creepy and foreign but at the same time is comforting, in the same way as watching a rainstorm from inside a warm house.

B5

Despite having been reduced to a dystopia, or perhaps because of it, Rapture’s atmosphere is wonderfully absorbing. No area is off limits to exploration in BioShock.

Filled with millions of colors and sounds, Rapture will draw you in. It just will, The level design is competent, agilely combining large hub areas with tight corridors and small but heavily decorated rooms. The music is haunting, combining high-pitched waves of violin strings with low bass, capturing the beauty of the city as well as the tragedy of its fall.

It may have occurred to you that I’ve reviewed other games that had all of these great elements in play. What makes BioShock so special? Never before or since I first played this game two years ago have I seen a game that combines all the elements I’ve talked about as well as Bioshock does.

B4

BioShock is darkly beautiful and emotionally endearing. Its story captured me and still does every time I play.

Despite a few minor gameplay problems, the game unites its atmosphere, story, music, artwork, level design and gameplay into a seamless, fluid narrative. The story encompasses themes of greatness, of tragedy, and redemption. It’s a beautiful story, and an amazing video game. Go get it; don’t pay too much, but even if you do, you’ll get your money’s worth.

____________________

You can buy BioShock here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Alan Wake’s American Nightmare

A

Stop a murderous psychopath in the Arizona desert.

PC Release: March 22, 2012

By Ian Coppock

Time travel is one of the world’s riskiest plot devices. A story that packs too many realities can threaten to get sucked up its own butt. Alan Wake’s American Nightmare packs this issue and others, but I decided to revisit the game anyway after finishing up Short Horror Week II. I wasn’t ready to be done with spooky games and while the first Alan Wake isn’t that spooky, I decided to drop in on the franchise to see if it’d redeemed itself.

____________________

Despite sabotaging its own scares, Alan Wake was, by most estimates, a good game. So it was weird to see that the follow-up to a major title took the form of a low-key arcade download. American Nightmare is billed not as a sequel, but a “standalone” Alan Wake game. Why do people use that term? It takes place after the first game, and it features things that happen after the first game. It’s a sequel.

Anyway, two years or so after Alan Wake, the series’s titular novelist is dropped into the Arizona desert in the middle of the night. The game takes enthusiasm at in medias res to new heights. Alan has apparently been battling his evil doppleganger, Mister Scratch, for some time. Our entry point in the story is pretty far along that conflict.

Mr. Scratch (right) is apparently Alan's evil twin, crediting himself as "the Alan who has the balls to do what you never did."

Mister Scratch (right) is apparently Alan’s evil twin, crediting himself as “the Alan who has the balls to do what you never did.”

As my confusion at having an evil twin was starting to reach a fever pitch, I noticed that Mister Scratch was commanding groups of Taken, the shadowy fiends from Alan Wake. Mister Scratch is the creatures’ new leader, and is hell-bent on killing Alan and taking over his life.

Making this game more confusing is that Alan appears to have written it. The novelist has the ability to rewrite reality, and jumps into this world knowing exactly what to do and expecting you to as well. It’s a bit stupid how Alan kept yelling at himself to run at this and sprint at that with very little context for the player. If this was an attempt at building intrigue, it was clumsily executed.

I'm not digging the "he knows but the player doesn't" model of storytelling.

I’m not digging the “he knows but the player doesn’t” model of storytelling.

In order to defeat Mister Scratch, Alan has to reenact the novel he wrote. Most of the game is spent running around nighttime Arizona with this goal in mind. You have to investigate hotel rooms, fix cars, and blow up oil rigs. As that sentence implies, these events felt completely random.

Alan has to do all this while battling the Taken, the malevolent demon-spirit things from the first game. Like before, the Taken seem to be working-class ghosts, counting firemen, lumberjacks and miners among their numbers. A bit strange, but whatever.

HOLY BALLS! Who brought in the Tanks from Left 4 Dead???

HOLY BALLS! Who brought in the Tanks from Left 4 Dead???

American Nightmare’s gameplay is exactly the same as Alan Wake‘s. To defeat the ghosties, you have to shine a light at them until they’re stunned, then shoot them. Shooting at a ghost has never made much sense to me, but perhaps the bullets are silver? No, wait, that’s werewolves. I don’t know.

Once again, the Alan Wake games erase their own tension by pointing the camera at approaching baddies, so you’ll always know EXACTLY from whence they spring. I really have no clue whose idea it was to implement that system, but they have no understanding of suspense. Horror doesn’t come from something nasty, or darkness; it comes from the fear of something nasty being in the darkness. This ideal sails right over Remedy Entertainment’s head, making this game, like the last one, a slightly unsettling shooter rather than a horror game.

How am I supposed to be scared if I know when and where the creatures are coming from?

How am I supposed to be scared if I know when and where the creatures are coming from?

American Nightmare is also intentionally repetitive. The entire game comprises three areas that you’ll visit three times apiece. Alan divulges that he’s stuck in a “time loop” with Mister Scratch, which he can only fix by reenacting his book exactly as it was written. But, he can’t remember his own writing, because multiple times Alan has to go back in time and start over in the first area again. Confusing much?

This feature made me frown a bit. I understand that there’s only so much to be put into a downloadable title, but if Alan wrote the book, why can’t he remember what to do? Amnesia is the title of a great horror game but it’s also an overused plot device. This game just expected me to expect that, because if Alan had a reason for his forgetfulness, he didn’t state it.

A2

You have to revisit the same trio of areas three times. The puzzles change a bit, but going back over and over becomes tedious.

Finally, the writing in this game is… well it’s not terrible, but it’s certainly a significant step down from the first game’s script. Alan has stilted, tedious conversations with various characters, all of whom are three conveniently placed, attractive women (one per area). Alan seems to have been dumbed down a bit from the eloquent character of the first game, and the three women you meet are little more than breasts with quest markers hovering overhead.

Which I realize is a hallmark of this industry but… yeah, just kidding. The writing in this game is terrible.

"Hi, this is Alan Wake's American Nightmare. We seem to be having some trouble with script writing so just stare at these for a while."

“Hi, this is Alan Wake’s American Nightmare. We seem to be having some trouble with script writing, so just stare at these for a while.”

The game does receive a good bit of polish and has noticeably better visuals than the first game. The environmental design is solid enough but it’s a little simplistic. Most areas are, for all intents and purposes, empty lots with rows of doors you can just peruse at your leisure.

The game lacks the claustrophobic turny-aroundy environmental work that makes horror games that much scarier. And since you revisit the same three areas three times over, the well of exploration has run dry 33% of the way through the game.

See? Look, even Alan's getting bored.

See? Look, even Alan’s getting bored.

Like the Brotherhood and Revelations installments of the Assassin’s Creed series, this game feels like it was made out of obligation rather than inspiration. Alan Wake 2 is in the works, and I advise Remedy Entertainment to cling to that “standalone” line as much as possible, if only to distance the sequel from this below-average horror-shooter.

If you’re just passing through looking for new gems, then no. Hardcore Alan Wake fans should only bother with this game if it’s on sale or something. It’s not a terrible game, but it does nothing well and some things badly. Even if I hadn’t come off of a seven-day stint of terrifying indie games, I would’ve gotten bored with this. It’s just not worth it. On top of that, the phrase “American Nightmare” or “American Horror” is perhaps the least informative phrase in the horror genre. Is it because… it takes place in America?

____________________

You can buy Alan Wake’s American Nightmare here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.