Category Archives: 2007

#91: BioShock and BioShock 2

Format: Xbox 360 Genre: First Person Shooter Released: 2007/2010 Developer: 2K Games

OK, so I’m sort of breaking the rules a bit here by doing two games in one post, but seeing as I made up the rules in the first place, I think I’m allowed to break them every now and then. The truth is, I just couldn’t choose between these two games: on the one hand, the story of BioShock 1 was fantastic, with an excellent twist in the tale, but on the other hand, BioShock 2 was a much better game, with some excellent tweaks that made the whole thing much more enjoyable to play than its predecessor. So they’re both in. So there.


But why are they so good? In one word: Rapture. The decaying underwater city is so brilliantly realised that you feel almost compelled to explore it, if only to uncover the stories behind the magnificent – now crumbling – art deco skyscrapers so incongruously rooted to the Atlantic seabed. Of course, entering the world of Rapture requires you to leave your disbelief suspended at the door, and anyone who foolishly asks their hosts how they managed to build an entire secret underwater city using 1940s technology will be politely but firmly asked to leave; however, if you can manage to turn off your scepticism, Rapture is a wonderful place to lose a few hours in.

By far the best thing about the first game was the city’s founder and leader, Andrew Ryan. One of the first things you see after entering Rapture (following one of the best opening scenes of any game, ever) is an enormous statue of Ryan clutching a banner that reads: “No Gods or Kings. Only Man.” It’s a philosophy that runs through the entire game, with the idea that Rapture was founded by Ryan as a sort of cult of egotism, wherein the finest minds from all over the world could excel in an environment that’s free of interference from state or religion.

What about 'Woman'?

Interestingly, it was only when researching this post that I discovered that Ryan’s philosophy is actually based on that of the Russian-American novelist Ayn Rand, who developed a philosophical system called Objectivism. In the novel Atlas Shrugged (the name of which might ring some bells for anyone who’s played BioShock), she lays out “the role of the mind in man’s existence—and, as a corollary, the demonstration of a new moral philosophy: the morality of rational self-interest.” The novel itself describes how “the most creative industrialists, scientists and artists … retreat to a mountainous hideaway where they build an independent free economy”; substitute mountains for ocean and you’ve got Rapture in a nutshell. Ryan’s philosophy also has shades of John Stuart Mill, who believed that social liberty could only be achieved if the people were freed from “the tyranny of political rulers”.

Intriguingly, the antagonist of BioShock 2 is a philosopher at the other end of the scale – rather than self-interest, Sofia Lamb leads a cult based around altruism. Sadly though, Lamb isn’t a patch on the character of Andrew Ryan, and it’s telling that one of the best bits in BioShock 2 occurs when you come across an animatronic ‘Pirates of the Carribbean’-style Ryan as part of a propaganda fairground ride called ‘Journey To The Surface’. I couldn’t help wishing that Ryan was in the second game a bit more as I listened to his robot alter-ego warning of the tyranny of the state, which he claims will tax you to death and steal your children for the armed forces (all illustrated with some wonderful dioramas featuring the giant hand of government hovering over hardworking American families).

One of the major hazards in Rapture is the static-forming nylon carpet that covers every surface.

As you can tell, the story of the BioShock games is certainly a cut above your average first person shooter, but it’s all too easy to get carried away with the philosophy of it all when in actual fact most of the game is based around brutally killing wave after wave of horribly mutated madmen. The introduction to the IGN review of BioShock 2 sums it up nicely:

One of my flat mates, not a gamer but drawn to the sound and fury, sits down to watch me play. “Is this Quake?” “No, it’s called BioShock 2.” “Uh-huh. But it’s like Quake, right?” “Um, not really – it’s about the nature of man” – BLAM! Aaargh! – “and the effects of trying to create Utopia “BIFF! Aieeeeeeeeeee! “in an art-deco city populated by artists and scientists” CHUDDA-CHUDDA-CHUDDDA-YeaaaaaaaaAAAAAAaaaaAAA-SPLAT” and inspired by the philosophical theories of Ayn Rand and John Stuart Mill.” I messily ram my giant drill-arm into the face of a screaming, swearing mutant in a party dress, and then we both fall silent as we watch the blood fade from the screen. He looks at me, brow furrowed. I relent: “Yeah, it’s kinda like Quake.”

And yes, this is as sinister as it looks.

Thankfully, the fighty shooty bits are just as engaging as the thinky story bits, particularly in the second game, in which you play a rogue Big Daddy (that chap in the diving suit on the front cover). At certain points during each level you can acquire a Little Sister, who can be set down to gather ADAM from handy nearby corpses (which is exactly as gruesome and weird as it sounds). However, ADAM-gathering attracts wave after wave of Splicers, and probably the most enjoyable part of the game for me was peppering the room with meticulously placed traps before starting the gathering process, then watching in satisfaction as my hapless enemies were variously speared, electrified, incinerated or catapulted into walls.

Proximity mines, $386. Trap rivets, $267. Mini turret, $483. The sense of satisfaction when a horde of Splicers is scythed down by your devious traps? Priceless.

However, the one criticism I have of the BioShock games is that the RPG elements and action elements don’t always gel together quite as well as they should. I love all the background story – in particular the many audio diaries scattered all over the city, which flesh out the ideas and motives of the main characters – but all this careful characterisation doesn’t quite sit comfortably with the reality of the central gameplay, which involves hordes of mutant humans doing their best to kill you as soon as you walk into a room. I mean, surely there should be a few more ‘normal’ humans dotted about? Or even some slightly less homicidal ones? It would be nice if – just once – you walked into a room, and instead of the room’s inhabitants attempting to burn you alive as soon as they catch sight of you, they just turn around and say, “Hello, you must be new here! Fancy a biscuit?”

I’m afraid that just saying that everyone in Rapture has gone ‘mad’ – hence why they’re all trying to murder you – just doesn’t really cut it. Being ‘mad’ doesn’t automatically turn you into a ruthless killer – perhaps the developers could have added in a few Splicers who just like to sit on park benches surrounded by carrier bags full of ‘treasures’ collected from public bins, or maybe there could be a few Splicers who, rather than gunning down any strangers who walk into view, instead just feel compelled to turn the lights on and off five times before leaving a room.

"Would you like to see my collection of treasur... AIIIEEEE!!!! It burns!!!"

Still, despite this, the story remains excellent, and the first game has an excellent twist at the end, which you can read all about on the spoiler-tastic Wikipedia page (obviously don’t look if you plan to play the game). Sadly though, my enjoyment of BioShock 1 was rather tarnished by the way I played the game – most of my BioShock sessions took place late at night after my girlfriend had gone to bed, so I had to play with the sound turned right down to avoid waking her. Subsequently, I missed quite a few of the key plot details, some of which I only just found out about after reading the Wikipedia page a few moments ago, and which, had I picked up on them at the time, might have made my BioShock experience even better than it was.

[Thankfully, I now have some headphones.]

"Er, sorry, would you mind moving out of the way please? I'd like to use the health station for a sec, so if you could just... Erm, why are you staring at me like that? Your what? 'Treasures'?"

The story of BioShock 2 is still head and shoulders above most games, but unfortunately it doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor (even though the ending is a lot better in my opinion). The Minerva’s Den DLC, on the other hand, has an absolutely brilliant story that I think surpasses both of the main games – the ending was one of the few occasions where I’ve genuinely been moved by a computer game. It’s just a shame that Minerva’s Den is likely to be the last time we’ll be able to explore Rapture… Although the rather exciting trailer for BioShock Infinite has both Ian and me far more excited than grown men really should be at the prospect of a new video game about floaty islands and robot horses.

Finally, I couldn’t end this post without mentioning the rich vein of black humour that runs throughout both games, in particular the brilliant little cartoon clips you receive whenever you purchase a plasmid upgrade. Anyone familiar with Vault Boy from the Fallout games will recognise the twisted humour of these irrepressibly cheery 1950s-style advertising shorts: the video below is a compilation of each and every one of them (make sure you have the sound turned up to catch the fantastic voiceover).

Oh, and I also came across the pic below during my travels along the information superhighway, and I just had to include it – it’s a BioShock bento box. Brilliant.

You can see more weird and wonderful bento boxes here – who knew the humble bento box could be such an inspirational art form?

Lewis

(Box shot from nerdles.com, screenshots from ign.com)

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Filed under 2007, 2010, 2K Games, First Person Shooter, Xbox 360

#64: Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock

Format: Xbox 360 Genre: Rhythm Action Released: 2007 Developer: Neversoft

I had a very embarrassing moment a few months ago. My girlfriend came home unexpectedly and caught me stood on top of the sofa, throwing rock poses and windmilling my ‘rock arm’ like there was no tomorrow as I powered through ‘Paranoid’ by Black Sabbath. Perhaps this would have been acceptable if I was playing a real guitar, but it’s definitely not cool if you’re playing a tiny plastic guitar with big multicoloured buttons. And if you’re wearing slippers.

Guitar Hero 3 box art Xbox 360

But hey, where’s the harm in indulging your rock fantasies every once in a while? Sure, a tiny part of your brain is telling you that you’re not really playing a face-melting solo to an audience of thousands, but a much larger, fun-loving part of your brain is screaming “OH MY GOD THIS IS AWESOME, YOU ROCK!!!” The same part of your brain might also prompt you stick out your tongue and waggle it like Gene Simmons or attempt to stage dive from the sofa.

All good clean fun I reckon – as long as no-one else is watching that is.

No prizes for guessing who this character is based on.

I’ve always preferred the Guitar Hero games to the Rock Band ones, probably because Rock Band takes itself a little too seriously in my opinion. As far as I’m concerned, the more ridiculous and over the top the Guitar Hero games get, the more I like them. Do I want to play as the Grim Reaper? Hell yeah! Do I want stage sets featuring fire-breathing dragons? You betcha! Do I want to go head to head with the devil in a guitar-solo battle for my very soul? Bring it on, Grandma!

Ahem, sorry, I seem to have come over a bit ‘gung-ho’ there all of a sudden… must be thinking about all this rock that’s doing it. I need a lie down and a cup of Earl Grey…

Judy 'Nine Inch' Nails.

[Sound of cup being replaced in saucer] OK I’m back. Now what was I saying? [Riffles through the index cards of memory while tapping a finger to his temple.] Lars Umlaut! That’s it! That’s what I wanted to talk about!

I’ll explain. There are a number of reasons why Guitar Hero III is considered the best in the series by many. One is the fantastic selection of tunes – one of the strongest line-ups across all five Guitar Hero games. Another is the excellent career mode, which gives you a real feeling of progression (something that was distinctly lacking in Guitar Hero: World Tour). But the thing that stands out for me is that Lars Umlaut is still defiantly fat.

Lars Umlaut - still defiantly fat.

For some reason, the designers stripped Lars of his belly in World Tour – something tantamount to criminal damage in my opinion. Where would rock be without fat guitarists? I mean, everyone loves a fat guitarist – almost as much as they love a fat drummer. Yet there’s poor old Lars in World Tour, shorn of his gut and pumped up with ridiculous arm muscles like some sort of Kiss He-Man. Where’s the justice? And to top it all, you can’t even make fat characters in World Tour. When did games get sizeist? There I was trying to create the ultimate custom drummer – Fat Phil – and the fattest I could make him was a little bit short of what I’d call ‘stocky’. Tch. I ask you, what is the world coming to?

Lewis

(Screenshots from http://www.crispygamer.com/)

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Filed under 2007, Neversoft, Rhythm Action, Xbox 360

#51: Super Mario Galaxy

Format: Wii Genre: Platform Released: 2007 Developer: Nintendo

Yep, it’s Mario again, making his triumphal third appearance on 101 Video Games (after cropping up in Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario Kart). I’m a big fan of the Mario games (who isn’t?), and Super Mario Galaxy is, in my opinion, the finest Mario game ever made.

There was a lot riding on the Wii incarnation of Mario – many people felt Nintendo had dropped the ball somewhat with Super Mario Sunshine on the GameCube, so Galaxy was Nintendo’s chance to restore Mario’s reputation. The trouble with Sunshine was that it didn’t really feel like a Mario game – partly because of the holiday location and partly because of the unnecessary introduction of the FLUDD backpack. It was telling that the most enjoyable levels in Sunshine were those which disposed of the backpack entirely and relied instead on good-old-fashioned, Mario 64-style platforming. So what would Nintendo come up with for Galaxy? More innovations? Or the return to old-school platforming that the fans craved?

Well, a bit of both actually. The actual platforming in Galaxy goes right back to Mario 64 for its inspiration – the triple jump, long jump and ground pound are all present and correct, and the whole feel is much more reminiscent of the game’s noble N64 forebear than its slightly awkward GameCube cousin. However, although the basic platforming mechanic is the same, in all other areas the game is totally chock-full of new and innovative ideas, and it’s such a big leap forward for the series that it makes you wonder where on earth Nintendo will be able to take Mario next.

One of my favourite gaming moments of all time is the first level of Mario Galaxy. Circling around the tiny planetoids and firing yourself into space with the star cannons is brilliant fun – it put a big ol’ grin on my face that pretty much stayed there for the entire time I played the game (and for sometime afterwards, too). And the fantastic ideas just keep coming – levels where the gravity keeps reversing, a galaxy made out of children’s toys, a bumblebee suit that lets you fly… there’s more imagination in one level of Mario Galaxy than in most entire games.

Of course, there are one or two minor niggles. The ‘rabbit catching’ section right at the very beginning is a little irritating – and surprisingly hard. In fact, when I was showing the game to a friend, I actually had to catch the rabbit for them because they found it too difficult – not a good sign considering Mario is meant to be accessible to everyone. Conversely, quite a large portion of the game is almost too easy; although having said that, some of the last few levels are devilishly difficult (see the article I wrote for Terminal Gamer here).

These are minor gripes though – Super Mario Galaxy is without doubt one of the finest games I’ve ever played, and certainly reason enough to buy a Wii if you haven’t done so already. I hardly ever play through a game again once I’ve finished it, but on completing Galaxy my first instinct was to go right back to the beginning and play it all through again… and it’s even better the second time around.

Some highlights from the game:

The wonderful first level:

Lewis

(Screenshots from www.ign.com.)

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Filed under 2007, Nintendo, Platform, Wii

#21: Okami

Format: Playstation 2 Genre: RPG Released: 2007 Developer: Clover Studio (Capcom)

I’ve just finished Okami, after playing it for an astonishing 40 hours. The developers have obviously done something right, because games that can hold my attention for that length of time are very few and far between (thankfully, otherwise I doubt I’d get much done). Wow, 40 hours. When you write it down like that it seems like an enormous amount of time – nearly two whole days of gaming… And considering I only bought the game for a tenner, that’s some seriously good value for money.

Okami PS2 box

Without a doubt, Okami is one of the best games I have ever played. The production standards are amazing throughout, and the artwork is just stunning. The game is presented in the Japanese ‘sumi-e‘ style of ink painting, so each character has a bold, black outline that is juxtaposed to great effect against the dreamy watercolours of the scenery. However, the screenshots on this post really don’t do this game justice – in motion, the stylised art and fluid animation looks truly astonishing. Having said that, some of the static storyboard screens you are presented with, such as the dramatic image below, also manage to be breathtaking.

okami artwork

In fact, the game’s artwork is so good, its been immortalised in a coffee table book, and there can’t be many games that can claim that accolade.

The game itself plays a lot like The Legend of Zelda: the real-time action and simple combat makes the game instantly accessible but belies iceberg-esque hidden depths. Just when you think you’ve got the game licked, it throws out another twist, and the plethora of quests, sub-quests and collectibles provided me with hours of entertainment – and even after 40 hours playtime, there were still plenty of quests I had yet to complete and combat moves I had yet to unlock.

Okami Amaterasu

Speaking of combat moves, I have to mention my delight at unlocking the legendary ‘Golden Fury’ technique, which involves humiliating your opponent by – wait for it – cocking your leg and urinating on them (accompanied by a ‘tinkling’ sound effect). As of the time of writing, I have yet to amass the 2,000,000 yen needed to unlock the ‘Brown Rage’ technique, although I’ve got a fairly good idea as to what it involves.

Okami black tree

Whilst on the subject of the game’s humour, I have to mention the excellent localisation. All too often, the European localisation of Japanese RPGs falls a bit flat, with any nuances or humour in the dialogue either being totally bulldozed or sounding utterly ridiculous. Happily, the script for Okami is a delight, and Issun, your ‘wandering artist’ companion, gets some genuinely funny lines that still work despite the Japanese-mythology-oriented setting and characters (incidentally, the enemy characters in Okami have to be some of the most brilliantly realised and unforgettable baddies yet seen in a video game – my favourite being the Igloo Turtle).

Okami brush

The most memorable feature of Okami is your ability to affect the world around you by pausing the action and using your tail to draw sumi-e-style patterns. These patterns, or ‘brush techniques’ (which are unlocked as the game progresses), allow you to slice enemies in twain with a simple flick or conjure up a gust of wind at will, to name just two. As you unlock more and more techniques, the game throws up more and more ingenious uses for them, leading to some brilliant ‘Aha!’ moments as you finally figure out a tricky puzzle or use a new technique to access a hidden area in a previously explored realm.

Okami Battle with Orochi

For all these reasons, I cannot recommend Okami enough – it really is one of the best games I’ve ever played. The only downside is that with the demise of Clover Studio, a sequel seems highly unlikely… 

Lewis

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Filed under 2007, Capcom, Clover Studio, Playstation 2, RPG