Archive for March, 2013


You got trouble, my friends, right here in River City. That’s Trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with C and that stands for Columbia (with due apologies to Meredith Wilson). It’s the summer of 1912. To place things into historical perspective, the Republic of China is now about 7 months old, World War I is still a bit more than two years off, New Mexico and Arizona are brand new states (47th and 48th, respectively), Robert Scott has reached the South Pole, the first Japanese cherry trees were just planted in Washington, the world is still shocked over the sinking of the Titanic, the first issue of Pravda is published, and “Tarzan of the Apes” is still a couple of months away. This is also the year in which Meredith Wilson’s musical, “The Music Man”, is set (for those who keep track of such things).

Ken Levine and the folks at Irrational Games have produced another great game. It is Bioshock through and through. Fans of the first game will likely love it and gamers who never played the original are in for a treat. Here’s the short version (out of 10):

Story: 9
Graphics: 9
Gameplay: 8.5
Sound: 8.5
Replay: 9
Overall: 9

In no particular order, here is the long version:

Sound

I can’t say that the sound blew me away, but the music is generally very good to outstanding, depending on what you’re looking at. The period tone of the music is exceptionally well done. I would have liked to have heard a bit more ragtime or barbershop than I did, but I realize that the game isn’t a jukebox (a selective coin-operated player won’t be patented until 1918, btw). The music hovers in the background without necessarily drawing attention to itself unless you’re actively listening to it. In those instances, it’s perhaps a bit too faint and I have the music slider maxed. In periods of action, it’s maintains the emotion of the moment while being almost unnoticeable, which is as it should be.

In order to keep from disturbing the rest of the house, I try to keep the sound down to a reasonable level (yes, I have headphones, but they’re a pain), so I turn down the effects and leave dialog maxed. But to make sure that I don’t miss anything, I always run with subtitles turned on. There are way too many instances where the subtitles and the sound are a few seconds out of sync, making it very difficult to keep track of who is saying what. There are no subtitles for the audio recordings and Elizabeth (more on her in a bit) has the most annoying habit of doing scripted dialogue while those recordings are playing, so you’re trying to listen to one thing and read another at the same time. These are scripting things that could have (should have?) been addressed pre-release as they do detract from the game.

Voicing is very well done with major kudos to the audio folks and the voice talent. The dialogue comes across a bit flat in a few places, but the fact that it’s noticeable is a good indicator of the quality of the rest. Very well done when taken as a whole and those few flat spots are just a here-and-there kind of thing rather than whole segments of the game.

I’m not a big fan of giving voice to the player as it kind of forces the character into the developers’ mold rather than the player’s concept, but in this case it worked very well. It’s a matter of personal taste more than anything else, but DeWitt comes across exactly as he should. My only complaint in this area is that he has an annoying tendency to state the obvious. Yes, I know I should go over there to do something, but I’m busy doing something else at the moment, so would you shut up already?

Graphics

I’m in awe of the art team. The city of Columbia is astonishingly detailed. Yes, there are lots of static objects that get used, reused, abused and the like. What video games don’t suffer from this? But the buildings look like they belong, the walkways and streets are completely in keeping with the rest of the setting. Stores, offices and interior spaces are very attractively done. It really feels like you have stepped back 100 years in time. There are occasional texture gaps where it’s kind of obvious that there is nothing (literally) back there and there are a few places that were not navmeshed very well, but these are all momentary immersion-breakers rather than glaring gaps. You’ll be wanting to explore every nook and cranny of Columbia just to see what the design team put out there.

Aside from the occasional reflection, you won’t see much of Booker DeWitt except for his hands. I’m of mixed mind on the lack of third-person perspective. Forcing you to stay in first-person keeps you focused on your actions and the environment in which you are operating and is generally more immersive than working in third person. There are also technical issues with flip-flopping between perspectives, so I’m going to go along with the developers’ picking one and sticking with it. It works and is consistent, so I’m good with it. The only oddball thing is the bandage on his right hand. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not. It fits well with the story, but it suffers from some serious continuity issues as you go along.

Non-story NPCs are also well done. Their animations are smooth and natural. Skinning and costuming are very good. In comparison to story NPCs, they come across as a bit more cartoonish, but I’m fairly sure this was a compromise between budget and design. It’s nothing glaring and swarms of mobs are swarms of mobs, regardless of the game. Just don’t be expecting everyone you see to be hand-crafted.

Elizabeth, however, is a different matter. To my eye, she’s way too much like a Disney Princess. She is very painstakingly done, so this was a conscious design decision. I’m not trying to second-guess the developers on this, but I did expect her to be more like the pre-release concept art and less like Ariel with dark hair. Her animations are smooth, graceful and entirely in keeping with her character. She has a definite personality that is exceptionally well conveyed through the art and animation. Her clothing develops rips, tears, snags and picks up dirt and grime as you go and this stays with her. By the time you get to the end of the game, she has definitely been through the mill. This kind of attention to continuity is exceptionally rare with NPCs. In spite of that Disney look and a kind of prancing animation that gets a little old by the late game, she will be one of the most memorable NPCs you’ll come across.

Gameplay

Overall, gameplay is very well done and is true Bioshock from start to finish. Unlike many corridor-type shooters (and Bioshock Infinite is one, just with bigger corridors) your action and movement take place in three dimensions (when Skylines are available) and malleable (thanks to Elizabeth’s ability to add elements such as cover or automated allies, like turrets. You’ll need to be using both your weapons and your vigors (the Infinite equivalent of plasmids), so learn to use them. Vigors are upgradeable, so it wouldn’t hurt to specialize a bit, and is probably required if you play through in “1999 Mode”, which unlocks after you complete one play-through of the game.

There were several things that I found completely annoying in my first game, hence the 8.5 score for gameplay. The first has to do with the malleability of the environment. You can see the things that Elizabeth can bring in for you, which is nice, but their incessant encroaching into your field of view is downright distracting. Yes, I know I can ask her to bring in some cover over there, but would you please stop telling me that and let me deal with the fellow who is trying to shove a shotgun down my throat? It’s not that I think the feature is bad, because I don’t. My problem is the constant “in your face” way in which the game lets you know that the option is available. It needs to be toned down.

I did run into a few issues with NPCs clipping through static objects. Perhaps “clipping” isn’t the right word. It’s more like they occasionally don’t recognize that it’s there and just run right through it. Two examples with no major spoilers should adequately illustrate it. In your first visit to Finktown, you’ll come across the entrance to Shantytown, which will be unavailable for a little while. To keep you out, the developers placed some cargo crates inside the door. When I first opened them, Elizabeth ran through the crates to the other side, apparently realized she wasn’t supposed to do that and quickly came back through them. In another area, an NPC ran through a dining room table. In and of itself, it was no big deal, but I was chasing him at the time, so he had time to turn around and get off a couple of shots while I was trying to figure out how to get around the table to get to him.

On the subject of Elizabeth, she will generally want to stay in front of you. There are times, however, when her dialogue will say something to the effect of “you go ahead. I’ll wait down here.” Fine. I’m just exploring anyway. Two seconds later, she’s standing where she wasn’t and I’m left scratching my head and trying to figure out how she did that. Or I go through a doorway knowing that she’s right behind me only to find her in front of me on the other side of the door. Yes, she apparently teleports around and almost got shot a few times because of it. On the bright side, though, she will be the easiest NPC to escort that you have ever come across. Except for a couple of scripted sequences (where she isn’t in any danger, anyway), enemies just ignore her.

She tries to be helpful by offering you ammo, health and salts during battles. Helpful, but occasionally distracting. For example, she’ll sometimes offer you health when you’re down to about half. In and of itself, it’s no big deal, but if I already know where to pick up some health and what I really need is ammo, she won’t offer ammo until I’m either back up above half or have taken her offer. The rest of the time she’s very good about tossing money your way. I’m still not sure if this is something she just conjured up or something that I overlooked.

She will also point out loot that you might want to take a look at. However she isn’t real clear on just where that loot might be. “Oh, look. There’s a lockpick over there.” Huh? Where is “over there”? She doesn’t know when you’re carrying a full load of them, so points them out regardless. It took me about two-thirds of the game to realize that a 3-digit lockpick counter didn’t mean I got to carry three digits worth of lockpicks. I’m still not sure whether a few lockpicks that I couldn’t pick up were because my inventory was already full or whether they weren’t lootable. I suspect the former since I didn’t run into that issue with anything else.

Another issue was weapon upgrades. In the original Bioshock, you got to carry several weapons, which were not droppable. You could add a couple of upgrades to each of them, but upgrade stations were limited in number and one-shot deals. In Bioshock Infinite, you can only carry two weapons, so you’ll be swapping them out frequently. You can also add several upgrades to each. The upgrade stations are plentiful and can be used multiple times. I ended up running most of the game with a fully tricked-out machine gun and sniper rifle before I realized that dropping a weapon did not mean that I would lose the upgrades. I think the game could have been a bit more clear on that point from the outset.

There are occasional run-ins with heavy hitters. I’m not sure whether to call these “boss fights” or not, but they were punishingly brutal and serve to illustrate another problem: death is meaningless. Like Bioshock, where you reappeared in the last Vita-Chamber you passed, dying in Columbia means you’re automatically brought back to life, minus some health and salts and a few coins. Since the game runs on a checkpoint save system, this kind of makes sense,but I would have rather seen bona fide game saves and death being a “reload or quit?” situation. This may be a holdover from the console development, but it doesn’t make much sense on a PC.

All in all, though, the gameplay was great and very smooth. I experienced exactly zero crashes (quite an achievement for a just-released game these days), although I did make sure that I updated my graphics drivers to the latest version before starting. There were a few points where there was some significant lagging and the fans on my graphics cards (dual GeForce 550Ti) sounded like an airport runway most of the time, so this is not a game for a low-end machine, at least not at a good level of detail.

Story and Replay

The storyline is very good. DeWitt and Elizabeth quickly establish themselves as very memorable and relatable characters. You’ll find yourself caring about both of them and also caring about some of the side characters. For others, you’ll care about them, but only to the extent of wanting to do a little percussive maintenance on their skulls (yeah, an 8-pound hammer ought to be about right). In many ways, the story is one of discovery rather than accomplishment and it works very well on many levels.

The story itself is very linear. This is not my favorite way of running a game, but I can live with it. With that in mind, you’re just going to proceed from objective to objective with little else to distract you from the story being told. There are a few side quests along the way, but they’re almost all of the type where you found a container that you can’t open and need to find whatever it is that opens it. In other cases you found the key, but need to find the container. Minor diversions along the story’s highway rather than true side-quests.

Those who have read certain sci-fi or fantasy books (which shall go unnamed lest I inadvertently spoil the story) and/or those who are at least passingly familiar with some of the weirder implications of Feynman diagrams will see the ending coming from a mile off. The issue is not with what is told, but what is not told, which neatly leads to my only major problem with the story.

My biggest complaint about the story is that the ending involves a lot of exposition. This was Ken Levine’s choice as the main writer and I’m not going to fault him (much) for it. He did an outstanding job of building his backstory, establishing the story line and he stuck to it masterfully. Although the setting will be mostly familiar, certain elements of the backstory could not be filled in until the end or else there wouldn’t have been much of a surprise to it.

So Ken chose to dribble out bits and pieces of of that backstory (it keeps you looking for those Voxphones), but left out certain pieces of critical information which would have tied it all together prematurely. I understand what he was trying to do and admire the way in which he pulled it off. But, as with most things, it involves a trade-0ff. In this case, lots of exposition during the dénouement. So take that 9 rating for the story as more of an indicator of a subjective preference than any objective failings. The story is very engaging and you’ll love the way the characters tell it.

There will be lots of unanswered questions by the time you get to the end, but nothing major and (mercifully) no “pick your favorite color” Starchild. While Bioshock Infinite does not have the potential to suck up 1000+ hours of your life (my first run-through took 19 hours with lots of exploring), I can just about guarantee that if you’ve been paying attention to the story, there will be enough unanswered questions that you’ll be firing up a new game almost as soon as you’re done with the first one.

Bioshock Infinite more than lives up to the standard established by the original. For fans of first-person shooters, this will be a game that you’ll want to add to your collection and it’s a game that you’ll fondly remember long after you finish it (for the second or third or fourth time).

My normal practice in Skyrim is to start a character, play until I either decide to start another one or until I finish whatever it was that I set out to do and then delete the saves and start fresh. I developed this routine because I found that archiving a character to pick up again later was problematic when it came to mods. Which ones did I use with which characters? Or better yet, since I frequently add to those which I used at the beginning of a character, which mods were installed with a particular save? I’ve got a fairly standard base list (the unofficial patches, SkyUI, Better Sorting, JaySuS, retextures and the like), but that doesn’t account for the stuff that I might use with a particular character (Staff of Magnus fixes for a Mage character or a Companions overhaul for a werewolf/warrior type, for example).

I know that Wrye Bash can and does keep track of that kind of thing, but it’s not a tool that I use. There was some of that functionality with Oblivion’s mod managers, but it’s not there in NMM (a tool that I do like). So the simplest path was to just delete saves and start over rather than archive and pick up again later. Yet another reason why I detest that stupid cart ride and trip to the headsman. When you’ve seen it 20 or 30 times, it’s no longer entertaining.

And then a user named Mardoxx over that the Bethsoft forums pointed out that the active plug-in info is stored in the .ess, which can be viewed with Notepad (or Notepad++). Just search the file for .esm and you’ll find them all lumped together. The only downside I can see to this is that you need to know which .esm/.esp files go with which mods. Fortunately, most mod authors are pretty good about naming them as something resembling the mod’s name. For the rest, well, you pays your money, you takes your chances.

For a couple of reasons, I argued long and hard with myself about pre-ordering Bioshock Infinite (it will release on Tuesday). The original game, released back in 2007, was a marvelous game. I caught it on-sale at Direct2Drive (now GameFly) and played through it a couple of times. There was little about the game that I didn’t like and even my dislikes were more of minor annoyances than “what were you thinking?” kinds of things.

Perhaps my biggest complaint was that, because it was a fairly linear story, it didn’t have a ton of replay value. After all (spoilers follow, but for a six-year-old game, who cares?), once you’ve saved the Little Sisters and harvested them, there isn’t much else to do. But catching it on sale kind of offset that little problem. People who spend $10 or $15 on a movie  they’ll only watch once or twice will understand the logic of that.

Bioshock 2 was on my radar, but I never got around to it due to the resounding “meh” from all corners. It wasn’t produced by Irrational Games, the makers of the original, so I didn’t hold it against the series and pretty much just waited for Bioshock Infinite to roll around.

On the other hand, Bioshock Infinite is at it’s full $60 glory, so pre-ordering it was a tough call. I’m not expecting that the game will have much more replay value than the original, although I did note the existence of a Season Pass, which would seem to indicate plans for something beyond the game itself. The first review to hit the presses was from IGN where it garnered 95/100. I normally take reviews with a heaping tablespoon of salt, so that was merely intriguing rather than decisive.

No, what pushed me over the hump were the Steam pre-order bonuses: the original Bioshock (which is handy to have in my Steam library rather than sitting zipped up somewhere on my hard drive), an XCOM game (I’ve never played anything in that series, so a freebie as an intro do a different series was a major plus), and some Team Fortress 2 junk (which, frankly, I couldn’t care less about). There is also, allegedly, a puzzle-based add-on called “Industrial Revolution” which goes along with all pre-0rders, but Steam made no mention of it and I only found out about it by taking a gander at the 2K Games forums. So “allegedly” remains until such a time as it either pans out or not. We’ll see.

In any event, it looks like I’ll soon be taking a break from Skyrim for a few days thanks to Steam resorting to outright bribery to gain some preorders. I’m such a slut when it comes to bribery.

BioWare has finally ended the Mass Effect 3 fiasco with the last little piece of single-player Mass Effect 3, “Citadel,” being released last week. Thanks in large measure to the poor way in which BioWare (mis)handled the ending of ME3, the game has been almost completely off my radar since the end of summer. In checking my game’s stats, it hasn’t been launched since early October and the time before that was in mid-September. In the interim, BioWare released two major DLCs, Omega and Citadel that never even blipped.

I was alerted to the end of the nightmare not by BioWare or anything related to it, but by a YouTube video by CleverNoobs taking exception to Tweets by BioWare folks regarding the current state of the fanbase over the whole ME3 mess. Just goes to show how far off the radar ME3 has been, I guess. After bringing myself up to speed on both DLCs, (and not dislocating my arm while giving myself a pat on the back for calling the “Omega” DLC back in June), I am thrilled beyond measure to know that ME3 is over and done.

The game will likely get some play time during the summer because, frankly, there doesn’t appear to be anything coming this summer to get excited about. So it’s going to be hitting the game library for the most part.

As for the Mass Effect series, I’ll be keeping my eyes and ears open for ME4. While I hope that BioWare learned some valuable lessons from the past year, I can promise that I will not be pre-ordering  and will not be buying anything until I see what the fanbase has to say about it.

If anyone is interested in seeing what the “Citadel” DLC looks like, I’d highly recommend the video walkthrough by CaptainShepardN7. If it weren’t for a story ending that made the whole thing pointless, I’d certainly be buying and playing. It looks like a load of fun.

The new SimCity has been high on my wishlist for quite a while. But having been burned by Mass Effect 3, I did not preorder (yes, EA is still on my shit list). I still have not bought the game, but I have been diligently following some of the “Let’s Play” folks over at YouTube to see it in action. There are several out there, so go watch a few.

Based solely on those videos, I’m still not in the buying mood for SimCity. Yes, the game is gorgeous, smooth, and true to the original. It’s the always online requirement and some of the stuff that goes with it that has my knickers in a wad.

Problem one: if you must be always online, this kind of removes the game from the sort of thing you can play on your own. You’re dependent on servers being up and running 24/7 as well as uninterrupted internet access. Fine on your home machine (barring thunderstorms and the like), not so fine when you’re depending on something like a Wi-Fi hotspot on your laptop, for example.

While most of the “Let’s Play” stuff was done right after release and server issues are more or less expected (yet another reason for not pre-ordering), watching players crash and burn over issues that were not of their making is worse than sad.

Problem two: I saw no way of saving your gameplay, so it appears that you start from scratch each time you fire up the game. This would seem to translate into either very long playing sessions or constant one-off cities that barely get past the planning stages (or perhaps both). There would seem to be nothing in between.

Problem three: the size of your city is going to be limited. Fine if you’re into small cities; not so hot if you’re into the mega-cities that were possible with previous versions of the game.

Problem four: because of the small size, you’re pretty much forced to specialize your city and work in cooperation with other players in the same region (private regions can be done). While there are obviously some good things to be had from MMOs, I don’t think SimCity was really cut out for them. Time might prove me wrong, but I’m just seeing too many potential problems with this approach. Perhaps if there were some way to blend the two, but not as it’s currently set up.

All in all, I’m not certain that the new enhancements to the game will outweigh the problems I’ve seen thus far. Consequently, it’s still on my “watch” list rather than on my “buy” list. I’m hoping that will change over the coming days/weeks, but in its current form, it doesn’t appear that I will be playing it anytime soon.

I started a another playthrough of Skyrim a few weeks ago. I decided to take a swing at using SkyRe combined with Frostfall and Realistic Needs and Diseases to see if it made for a more immersive game. I’m happy to report that the answer is both yes and no, depending on what you’re looking for in “immersive”.

SkyRe (Skyrim Redone) is an overhaul by T3nd0 that redoes the perk trees, eliminates several exploits from the game and generally turns the character development system on its head. On the whole, I’d say that he succeeded. The modded game is much more unforgiving (arguably “brutal”) than vanilla. The perk trees have been completely redone and (at least from my perspective) feel much more natural than the vanilla perk trees. The new ones allow for infinitely more specialization, especially when combined with mods like JaySuS Swords or Immersive Armors. There is also an Immersive Weapons mod, but JaySuS has been in my load order for so long that swapping seems a bit like giving up those comfortable shoes that took you a year to break in. On the other hand, JaySuS hasn’t been updated in almost a year, so perhaps it’s as broken-in as it’s going to get.

There is a fairly steep learning curve that goes along with SkyRe, so players used to (“entrenched in”?) the vanilla perk trees can look forward to a massively different gameplay experience. Depending upon your personal tastes, this could be very good or very bad. I’m currently leaning toward the “good” side of that.

Frostfall is a hypothermia mod. In simple terms, you’re not only having to battle the “ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties and things that go ‘bump’ in the night”, but the environment as well. It integrates very well with SkyRe (the Wayfarer perk tree includes perks tailored to Frostfall, for example). Adventuring is no longer a matter of making sure that your armor and weapons are up to the task. You must also consider your ability to cope with cold, wet and exposure. Frostfall also combines very well with Wet and Cold, which is mainly just graphical effects, but has a few other nice touches as well. Isoku (the Wet and Cold author) has a second mod to go with Dragonborn, but I have not done anything with it.

Realistic Needs and Diseases is kind of the icing on the cake. It forces you to eat, drink and sleep in order to maintain your fighting edge and you must worry about diseases on top of it. This is one where the jury is still out. It accomplishes its goals, but forces you to carry food and water. In and of itself, this is no big deal. But it’s a bit of an immersion breaker to be headed into some cave or other and see an “I need a nap” message as you enter or to hear your stomach growl as you’re trying to sneak down some corridor. I’m also not a big fan of the prevalence of disease in the larger world. Yes, by our modern standards, the medieval world was far from sanitary. But people were not keeling over from disease with the frequency of the mod’s defaults. Fortunately, all of this can be toned down through mod settings in MCM.

Each of these are outstanding mods in their own right. It’s in combination that problems start to raise their ugly heads.

My main complaint is that the pacing of the game slows tremendously. I’m using a self-imposed fast-travel limitation on my current game. Barring a game-over situation, I’m choosing not to use it (as opposed to allowing Frostfall to completely shut it down), although I will avail myself of carriages when it seems appropriate or convenient. To complicate matters a bit more, I am running at a timescale of 10 (in the console, “set timescale to 10”) rather than the vanilla 20.

So if I hop in a carriage from Whiterun at around 7 or so, I get to Markarth or Solitude around noon-ish, can conduct my business and be back in Whiterun by dinner time or shortly thereafter. Barring extended dungeon-delving, which might take a day or two, everything now seems to be a day-trip length and I’m constantly having to wrap activities around meal times and sack time.

With the pacing slowed down so much, I admit to feeling much more engaged with the surrounding world, but I think it comes at the cost of that feeling of epic adventure that characterized the vanilla game. Fortunately, most of these things are configurable in MCM, so my complaints really boil down to stuff that I did to myself when setting up the mods. In my own defense, all I can say is that I have given honest effort to experiencing the mods as their authors intended them to be experienced.

You really should plan on starting a new game if you install these. While they can be dropped in on an existing character, there will problems. Most will be in the “annoyance” category, but there are a couple of features that will not work well. For example, SkyRe adds a huge number of new perks into the game and should really be used in conjunction with Elys’ Skyrim Community Uncapper. However, dropping the Uncapper onto an existing character can have some interesting side effects. My existing character was gaining Light Armor skill every time he got smacked with anything (fists, arrows, weapons, whatever). Without changing any of the config settings, my current character is gaining Light Armor skill at a much more reasonable rate.

In short, these mods in combination create a gameplay experience that is radically different from vanilla. Some gamers will enjoy this (perhaps with a few settings tweaks) while others will not. I think they’re definitely worth checking out.