Tainted Love: Bioshock Impressions

First off this has to be the most vivid, kaleidoscopic triumph of art direction in recent memory, making the meaty, bloomthirsty Unreal Engine into a thing of stultifying beauty (see also Alice: Madness Returns). From the moment you step into Columbia's sunlight, sky reflected in a pool of water - hard primary blue - it's gorgeous. Blah blah. Superlatives barely describe the first hour-ish of the game. It allows you to take in the world at your own pace, especially if you turn off the nagging hints and other 2013-standard critical path-ifiers (so grateful they can be silenced, though). Then the combat comes in, as it must.

And I felt...a little disappointed. Is that unrealistic? This is a game with the budget of a small Eastern European republic and there's no way it WASN'T going to ride the engine of death. The combat is appropriately insane, with magic powers and blunderbusses and dimensional rifts all smashing together. I started the game on hard and quickly learned the error of my ways. It's tough, especially with a controller, to manage the vertical/strafe-heavy strategy needed to take on twenty kitted-out enemies. And that's before you get to robot-fucking-George Washingtons and insane ghosts and dudes with horns for heads.

The plot initially takes far too many detours to hit like it should. Elizabeth is a great character, but for nine-tenths of the game rides a line between ammo dispenser and vital companion. No one even shoots at her, which I guess is Irrational's way of skirting the escort issue. There's one completely out-of-the-blue bit with inventor Jeremiah Fink 'auditioning' you for his Head of Security that feels wholly invented for the sake of having a Cohen or Steinman-esque interlude. The other notable detour, with the mad captain Slate, fills in backstory - and looks quite brilliant after having finished the game.

There are moments where the promise of Elizabeth comes through. Her sounds of disgust when you do the requisite finishers on enemies are always pitch-perfect, as are most of her incidental lines. The guitar scene - find it yourself - is fantastic, a moment of serenity that would've sufficed for a hundred "Why do you kill?" "Because I have to." exchanges.

Until you get to the end, a lot of the game feels slavishly indebted to the original Bioshock. And then all this is thrown into stark relief. It's hard to unpack even now, a few days after finishing. Is it stupid or brilliant? Cheap or clever? These questions feel reductive. It's at once a satisfying, layered, elegiac conclusion to Booker and Elizabeth's story and a dizzying smash-cut into a massive new universe. Unlike, say, the end of Lost, Irrational treat their mythos and their characters with equal respect. There's so much to go back and pore over upon finishing this game. So much left ambiguous, flickering at the edges. Superb.

Which makes the slog of the mid-game less of a blow. Most everything involving Daisy Fitzroy, Chen Lin, and the Vox Populi could be scooped out like so many melon seeds, leaving a leaner, tighter experience, and I rushed through that stuff because I wanted to KNOW, goddamnit, know about Elizabeth and the tears and her pinky and Booker's nosebleeds. On one hand it's Irrational's fault for setting up such a self-evidently mysterious, puzzle-box world that you can't help but want to understand. On the other, the combat wore me down and I didn't take the time to explore as thoroughly as I could've, missing Voxaphones and environmental cues. It'll take another playthrough to really get a handle on the pacing and structure of the story, precisely because the ending overshadows all the rest. I initially felt the climax rendered all the previous story - and especially the characters - irrelevant but I know enough now to get the way it reflects and reshapes, folds in on itself and the previous game. It's a lot to process and you either keep up or have to catch up. I had to catch up. But if Bioshock's big moment was a Brechtian flourish, even an afterthought, Infinite throws down like 8 1/2, like Gravity's Rainbow, like Mulholland Drive when the time comes.

The next step is to put down the gun. It's justified to a point here with Booker's character but I never felt what I was seeing from Comstock or Fitzroy was any worse than the way I was being forced to put down enemies left and right. Sure this makes thematic sense in the end. Can't decide whether it's clever to twist the conventions or just easy to justify them. But the ending is twenty minutes sans a single gunshot. I have faith Irrational can keep trying.

There's so much else to talk about: the way everything works toward thematic ends once you know where to look, the music (FUCK me the music), on and on.

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Max Payne 3: Problems

I don't know how to feel about this game. Playing it is generally fun: the gunplay has heft and Max carries himself with a believable weight. However, I'm playing on Hard and the checkpointing is absolutely abysmal. Multi-tier fights often restart at the very beginning and when combined with the iffy Last Man Standing mechanic can lead to tremendous frustration. On the flip side, when you nail a sequence it can be thrilling.

The real problems lie in the writing. The first two games struck a balance between outright camp and winking homage, but transposing the ridiculously hard-boiled narration into Rockstar's newly po-faced Payne makes things ridiculous. Max is more wordy than ever before, but most of his voiceover is directed at his own apparent incompetence with a little left over for the "rich fools" he's surrounded with. The dissonance here comes when Max chastises himself after a lengthy shootout, during which he has pulled off incredible feats such as flying through the air while shooting six guys in the head, or sliding down a roof to pop a hostage-taker in the skull. Or, you know, slowing down time. It doesn't make sense, and with trademark Rockstar subtlety the game bombards you with scenes of Max chasing pills with whiskey or calling himself a moron with a bad shirt. The past couple Rockstar titles haven't appeared to grasp the connection between what happens in cutscenes and what happens in gameplay - they want to tell you their amazing story, and what you do with your play time is up to you. Just don't expect it to interrupt the narrative unless there's a big flashing "CHOICE" across the screen.

If writer Dan Houser - also the architect of the spectacularly noncommittal John Marston - had gone with a more spare, terse Dashiell Hammett style to fit with the harsh world the game creates, things might be different. Throwing in some addled, associative White Jazz-era James Ellroy prose, or even tightening up the Chandleresque similies the game stuffs Max's mouth with would do wonders. There's a whole world of brutal crime fiction out there to work with, and while Rockstar pay due diligence to Tony Scott and Michael Mann, the game suffers from cheap, imitation-noir writing: dialogue that runs on and on like a man spending his whole life trying to escape his dead wife and child.

PS: I still play and love Red Dead Redemption, and I do like this game. There are just some really clear issues with the execution and it's frustrating that they were passed over.


Hunting Deer and Stealing Cabbages: Skyrim Impressions

Loving Skyrim so far, which I'm sure is just a SHOCK. The combat is solid; definitely skews toward Oblivion rather than Morrowind, but more responsive and visceral than in the past. Before I get too complimentary, though, some complaints.

The UI is a bit of a mess on PC. It's clearly designed for an analog stick, and I can see where that would work splendidly. However, I didn't buy a console version! The classic Bethesda tactic of underestimating your vision is in full force; the fonts are big, sans-serif, and given plenty of room to soak into your atrophied, cataract-ridden eyes. I expect mods real soon.

The voice acting is surprisingly good, with a predominantly Scandinavian tone to go along with the frostbitten Nordic setting. I'm not too sure about the plot yet; dragons have reappeared and the protagonist (one warpainted, mohawk-ed Nord named Kilesa, in my case) is the only person who can stop them. Mostly, I've been stalking wildlife with an ancient bow, working the forge, and pilfering the townsfolk's vegetables in the dead of night. There are some cool sim elements at play to make good use of those cabbages and pelts, including blacksmithing, cooking, chopping wood, and alchemy. Most impressive, I think, is the world itself, which is massive, beautiful, and richly detailed. The tutorial dungeon you pass through is filled with wondrous natural caverns, soaked in blue light and run through with icy streams. The mountains are wind-whipped and treacherous, the cities organic and gorgeously designed, and the dungeons are a far cry from the cookie-cutter pathways of yore.

No real conclusion, or point, here; I've gotta write for NaNo and - of course - get back into Skyrim. It's gonna be a while before I'm done, I think.


Certified Member of the Arkham Expansion Committee (spoilers)

I really liked Arkham City; it's a testament to Rocksteady that the game is able to both expand and refine Asylum's gameplay. I was afraid that feature creep was gonna kick in, but the controls are straightforward and I felt like I had a good grasp on my gadgets and tactics at all times (still haven't gotten the hang of that goddamn Knife Dodge Takedown, though). The Freeflow combat stuff is fundamentally the same as Asylum, but there are now dual and environmental takedowns, better gadget integration, and assorted new upgrades. The world is suitably big and filled with men to pound into unconsciousness, trophies to nab, and...rings to fly through? It can get pretty 'gamey,' yeah, but my real issue is the well-documented silliness of Batman taking a break from saving Gotham to work on his gliding skills; hell if I don't want to do all of it, though. Also, I found Catwoman (bought the game new) to be a joy to play because she felt so different to Batman - agile where he's deliberate. Using her whip to hop around is a fun diversion and crawling on ceilings is pretty cool. I'm easy to please.

Mechanically, then, the game is sound. The story is where things get dicey. There's an insatiable "more, more, more" mentality to the story: Catwoman, Two-Face, Penguin, Joker, Ra's and Talia al Ghul, Clayface, Harley Quinn, Quincy Sharp, Hugo Strange, and Mr. Freeze all figure heavily into the various twists and turns of the plot, and hanging around on the periphery are even more characters - Riddler, Robin, Alfred, Vicki Vale, Deadshot, Hush, Azrael, Oracle, Zsasz, Calendar Man, Bane, Solomon Grundy...you get the idea. As a lifelong Bat-freak I can't say I'm disappointed that they included a billion characters, but the story does feel rather perfunctory as a result. Go here to fetch this; learn that it's going to take several detours to fetch that. Repeat. Luckily, the very end of the game manages to be impressively bittersweet in handling an end (?) to the eternally symbiotic Joker-Bats relationship.

GENDERED INSULTS, BITCH: there are a lot. I think it'd be easier to take if Catwoman wasn't so obviously written by someone who's never actually heard a real-life woman speak - then again, crazy sexism and unconvincing female characters are basically the New 52's remit, so the game's right on point. A good summary of the situation is Joss Whedon's response to the query, "So why do you write these strong female characters:" "Because you're still asking me that question."

Arkham City has its issues, yes, but between the improvements to the combat and traversal and the veritable feast of Batman lore, it's a must-play.