Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category


As with most games, Dragon Age: Inquisition has its good points and bad points. Clunky inventory and frustrating combat controls probably head the list of bad points. Neither of those is a deal-breaker, but it’s certainly something to keep in mind if you’re considering whether or not to purchase it. Players who use a gamepad may or may not experience some of the same issues.

Taken as a whole, it’s an extremely enjoyable game. The 87/100 it has garnered at Metacritic (PC version) is pretty darned close to where I’d have rated it in a full-blown review. I’m impressed with its adherence to existing lore, happy to see the return of some NPCs from earlier games, and generally having a good time with it. Gameplay is closer to what I recall of DA2 than DAO. This will not sit well with some players (witness the borderline flame-war going on in the user reviews), won’t bother others and will likely not matter one way or the other to players who are new to the franchise.

Whether the game will turn out to be mod-able is an open question. There are a few headaches on the PC version that could be fixed with an appropriate mod and I’m hoping that they will be. Bioware’s track record on fixing gameplay issues isn’t stellar, although they have been good at fixing game-breaking bugs in a timely fashion. The multiplayer aspect of the game (which I have not messed with) may have some bearing on whether it can be modded, but I don’t know enough to comment one way or the other on its likelihood.

Graphically, the game is superb and can strain even a high-end system, so I’m expecting that it will be around for a long while to come. I am still chuckling over a few of the NPC beards and a couple of minor collision mesh issues and doubt that either of these will be repaired by the developers. And once again, I’m back to mod-ability, so let’s move on.

The sound is excellent, the music fits and is not overbearing. Voice acting is superb. Players may choose from two voices for their character, one with a British accent and one American. My character is using the British voice and she is absolutely marvelous. Ambient sound adds real atmosphere to the world. Major kudos to the sound team.

The storyline is interesting, if not exceptionally engaging. It’s typical heroic fantasy fare: the world as we know it will end if the player doesn’t jump in and do something about it. Side quests, though, are a mixed bag. Lots of little human touches, like stumbling over an undelivered letter and then needing to find its intended recipient, make the experience more personal for the player. Then there are the usual fetch-and-carry kinds of stuff that tend to be the meat and potatoes of most adventure games. Each of your party members also has a personal quest of some sort. Varric would like to destroy all of the Red Lyrium that you come across, for example. Fulfilling those requests will improve your relationship with that character. Failing to complete those quests will likely have a negative impact somewhere down the road. This is really nothing new; Bioware did the same with Mass Effect 2 and 3, for example, as well as similar missions in Origins.

The writing is done well. Missions won’t stick in your memory for very long once they are completed (most are rather generic), but NPCs are believable and mostly sympathetic, so your interactions with them likely will be memorable. I haven’t kicked off any major romances options yet, since I’m still with the original three party members. But I’ve discovered that Leliana is still in love with my original Warden (who is still out there somewhere according to my imported world state) and plans to join her as soon as the immediate crisis is resolved. That was a very touching conversation, at least from my end. Leaving aside the ME3 ending, Bioware knows how to tell a story well and Inquisition seems to be no exception in this regard.

I purchased the Digital Deluxe Edition (about $70) rather than just the basic game. As far as I can tell, the extras amount to some weapons and armor and a copy of the soundtrack. I’m not certain that it was worth the extra or not, but since that difference is only $10, I’m not going to gripe much or very loudly. I do, however, expect to be nickel-and-dimed to death on additional content somewhere down the line (we’re talking Bioware and EA here). As far as I am concerned, it has been and likely will continue to be worth the pricetag (I’m noting that there have been no “Black Friday” discounts on it). If you’re into Dragon Age, you’ve likely already purchased it. If you’re not, but are on the fence about whether to get it or not, I’d recommend the basic game ($60 at this time) and then decide whether or not you want any additional content once you’ve had a chance to experience it for yourself. If you’re into Fantasy RPGs, you could do a lot worse for your money.

Happy Gaming!

I’m guessing that this one should pretty much wrap things up. Having sunk a bit over 20 hours into the game, anything beyond this would need to turn into a full-blown review, which would necessitate finishing the game. Even the major reviewers noted that it took close to 80 hours to do that, and it included leaving a boatload of side missions and quests uncompleted. Since I’m being fairly completionist about it and most of those side missions and quests involve a lot of running around (time), I really don’t feel like waiting until after the beginning of the year to do it. But I’ll do a short wrap after this, just to hit the high points.

The controls lag is still an annoyance. It seems to take about a half-second or so after exiting inventory, or the character screen, or a cutscene or just about anything other than the main game screen before you regain control. And it’s consistent. I’ve don’t recall ever having immediate control after the game does something on its own.

There is a big “dead zone” at the bottom of the screen (right about at the hotkey toolbar) where the mouse-controlled camera stops working until you release your RMB, get the cursor back up off of the toolbar, and then reengage. This will likely not be a major issue for players using controllers, but it’s certainly an annoyance for those of us who use keyboard and mouse and is particularly problematic during combat. I don’t think the entire party has died from it, but we’ve come awfully close a few times.

As far as encounters (both set-piece and random), the game doesn’t do much hand-holding. Enemies do not appear to scale to the character/party. Instead, areas seem to be clustered around a particular level with a higher-level boss (or bosses) within those areas. So it is entirely possible to find your party completely overmatched in some places. For those cases, “run away!” appears to be a workable strategy as you can come back at a later point to clean up the few odd pieces that you weren’t powerful enough to handle on the initial encounter.

For those overhead Fade Rifts where I just can’t manage to get to a position where I can disrupt them, the only strategy that works consistently is to simply kill everything that it spawns. This eventually reduces the Rift’s health to the point where it will stop spawning stuff (until the area reloads, anyway) and then I can find the one tiny spot where “Close Rift” is accessible. This is extremely costly in terms of health potion usage and highly frustrating when your party is close to being overmatched, but it does work. Of course you do get experience for killing all of those extra spawns, but I’m not sure that the trade-off is worth it. I’m hoping that this is something that will get fixed in a patch,  sooner rather than later.

Potion usage seems to be a bit glitched in a couple of areas. First, you can expand the number of potions you can carry by spending Influence points at the War Room. But those extra potions don’t seem to get added to your inventory, either manually or automatically. For example, I expended a point for extra potions and should have 12 available rather than the base 8. But I’m still at 8 potions. This is apparently also an issue in the PS4 version of the game (I don’t know about the XBox version), so it’s likely something that will get patched eventually.

Along those same lines, you can add a second batch of potions (Health Regeneration, Lyrium, Grenades and probably other stuff that I haven’t researched yet) to each character’s belt. The default is five of these. However, party members will not automatically use these. Over five or ten hours of playing, all of my party members are still toting the original five potions that I gave them. Also, now that I’ve managed to research and upgrade a grenade, I can’t seem to remove the Health Regeneration potions that are already in their belts. I haven’t yet tried manually using them to empty the slot. Might work, might not.

OK, let’s deal with dying. When party members die, you will either need to send another character to revive them or finish the battle without them. Reviving requires pulling a character out of the fight, moving them to the fallen character, and then holding the appropriate key/button until the revival finishes. After the fight is over, the fallen will automatically revive with a couple of health bars. However, there is a “Revive” spell in the Spirit perk tree that will accomplish the same thing without the need to pull a character out of the fight. You’ll need to expend several points in the tree before you can get to it (four or five, I think), but it can be well worth the expenditure since it lets everyone keep slugging.

Unless there is something at the end of the game (like the Warden making the ultimate sacrifice in DAO), there does not appear to be any perma-death in the game. The closest the game seems to get to this is that if the entire party dies, you’ll need to reload your last save.

On the topic of saves, the game is pretty good about autosaving before combat, especially at major points like Fade Rifts. If you find yourself overmatched, you can always turn back after reloading. However, if you already have enemies on the screen, you will not be able to save or quicksave until you either finish the combat or back away. Kind of makes sense in a way. You probably don’t want to be stuck with a saved game where the party is doomed regardless of any actions that you take and your only other option is to lose several hours of play because you forgot to save. In this area, the game does some reasonable hand-holding. Saves are pretty dinky (about a quarter of a MB), so don’t worry about accumulating a ton of them (we’re not going to discuss the couple of GBs or so of saved games from my last Skyrim playthrough).

One last chuckle before closing. I’m noticing that Bioware is still having serious issues with NPC facial hair (well, hair in general). Head hair is somewhat better than earlier games, but still looks like a rubber wig a lot of the time. But a lot of beards are just flat-out funny. Some NPCs honestly look like they’re wearing fake beards, kind of like the strap-on Santa beards that go with cheap costumes. You can see gaps between the cheek and beard while you’re talking to them. Almost makes me wish there were some dialogue topic I could select to point it out to the NPC and then see them hastily try to adjust it.

And on that note, I think I’ll say, “that’s a wrap”. A very good game so far. It has a few glitches and failings, but most fall into the “mildly annoying” category with only one or two “seriously annoying” ones and nothing completely game-breaking. Happy gaming.

Back into the wilds of Thedas we go.

One of the first things that I’m noticing on this session is that loading times when traveling between areas are exceptionally long. Considering that the complete game was something on the order of 23GB or 24GB, long loads shouldn’t be horribly surprising, but when those load times run to several minutes, it’s excessive. I’m doubtful that this is my system, even though I am using HDDs rather than SSDs. Instead, the world map seems to have problems loading properly when I want to transition from one world area to another. Bioware’s record on fixing these kinds of things through patches is close to abysmal, but one can always hope, I suppose.

Loading screens have some nice game tips (three, typically). My only gripe is that they are a timed display (x-seconds or somesuch), after which they go to a black screen until the area finishes loading. I think I’d have left them up until the new area was completely loaded, especially since some are a bit longer than can be read in the time allotted. Much better than the single tip that a lot of games do, but not well implemented in this case. Maybe it will get picked up in a patch or something, but we’ll just have to see.

The world seems huge in comparison to Skyrim. In fact, the Hinterlands area by itself seems to be close to the same size as Skyrim. And no matter where you want to go, you can’t get there from here directly because there is a mountain or something in the way. So lots of running around, oftentimes in circles, it seems. But it’s all good and I’m enjoying it.

The creature spawning system strikes me as a bit borked. Most of the time it works the way it was intended, but occasionally it spawns something in the most illogical way. For example, we played smack-down on a few bandits and killed everything in the immediate area. AoE spells caused collateral damage on some wildlife that wasn’t particularly threatening, but still clear all around by the time we were done. After the fight, I’m looking for loot, find one, start to loot, and a bear spawned right next to me. Just POOF! And yes, I got mauled. And no, I was not a happy camper about it. That was the worst instance of the issue, but it’s not unusual for encounters to just pop in from nowhere. I seem to recall a similar issue with the “Honest Hearts” DLC for Fallout New Vegas and I don’t remember it getting fixed/patched. I guess that as long as they don’t spawn in my face very often, it’s something that I can live with, but it’s certainly an oddity.

The game controls seem a bit laggy at times. This is one that I’m not sure can be completely blamed on the game. My system is just borderline on the recommended specs, so it’s not like I can claim that I wasn’t warned ahead of time. I’m a bit better on RAM, VRAM and GPU than recommended, but am only running a quad-core rather than the recommended six-core for AMD, though my CPU clock speed is significantly better.  Nevertheless, there are occasional delays in command execution. Nothing critical up to this point, but still noticeable. And not noticeable in the sense of being annoying; just noticeable.

I’m catching several little collection/completion-type quests. These are ones where you’re supposed to find 20-odd bits of something that are scattered around the map or multiple locations of some type (camps and landmarks, for example). They’ve been running pretty smoothly, though they don’t seem to be adding much to the plot or story line. Since I’ve yet to complete any of them, I’m not sure whether they are there just for grinding or whether they serve some bigger purpose. I don’t suppose it’s any big deal either way; just a point of curiosity on my end. I’m not a big fan of that kind of stuff when it doesn’t serve any real purpose other than giving the player something else to do. As if my journal wasn’t already chock full of things that need doing.

Inquisition seems to have a system somewhat like Galactic Readiness in Mass Effect 3. Completion of quests, closing Fade Rifts, gathering supplies and that kind of thing generate support for the Inquisition in the form of Power points and Influence. These points can be expended in the Inquisition War Room to open new areas for play. Gathering influence also unlocks perks that can be applied to your character (perhaps “party” – I’m still unclear on that point). On the whole, it seems a more practical approach than ME3’s Galactic Readiness (which basically dictated how many side quests you could skip and still have some choices in the end game). In theory, the idea sounds decent. I’m just not in a position to be able to report on how well it was implemented, so we’ll just have to see.

As far as leveling goes, your party does not necessarily mirror your character’s level. At my last level-up (Level 6), I hit the new level a few hundred XPs before the rest of the party did. Each level gets you one perk point, which can be applied to any one of about four perk trees for each archetype (warrior, rogue, mage, etc.). The perk trees require some serious consideration on how you want to develop your character. But there is a “ring of respec” (for lack of a better name) that you can purchase in Haven. The vendor shows an infinite supply of these single-use thingies, so I’m guessing that the dev team decided that many players were going to want to say “oops! can I have a do-over on those perk choices?” at some point. I don’t know whether I’ll use it or not, but it’s nice to know that it’s there if I decide to.

Enough for another session. On the whole, I’m enjoying the game. There are several niggling little things that I’m noticing, but the only major one is the long loading times. Crashes have not repeated themselves, so perhaps that was a one-time issue that got resolved through a system restart. Restarting is a good idea after installing any new software and I just didn’t do it this time, so I’m going to give the devs a pass on that one. Not so much on the loading times, though.

Happy gaming.

Continuing on with my adventures in Thedas, I’m still reasonably impressed with the game’s quality and adherence to Dragon Age lore. I’m assuming that a Dalish Mage is now irrelevant as a sizeable chunk of Templars now view any mage as being an apostate (which is what a Dalish Mage would have been in DAO and DA2), so they tend to attack on sight.

Similar problems as before continue, although no crashes, thankfully. Camera controls in combat are a bit of a problem, especially when trying to close Fade Rifts that are above the player. It’s very difficult to see when and whether it’s possible to disrupt or close them, even in Tactical view. At one point, I ended up with three out of four party members dead simply because I couldn’t see the status of the rift without moving away from the encounter zone. Nor sure whether this is intentional or simply a design oversight, but it’s certainly a pain in the ass.

Questing around in the Hinterlands gave me a chance to extensively check out the map functions. On the whole, it’s pretty straightforward. It seems that only one quest at a time can be active (unlike Skyrim,where all quest locations can be showing on the map at the same time). It keeps things a bit neater, but also requires frequently checking back in the journal to keep track of where you’re going and why you’re going there.

The automap is pretty standard fare. Fog-of-war blanks most of the parts of the map until you have physically traveled to those areas. I have not found any way to turn map icons off and, upon consideration, am not certain that doing so would be a good idea. Since the game doesn’t tell you where you need to go (it’s just out there somewhere), you’d just be stumbling around blindly in the hope finding the correct location to do whatever it is that you need to do. Icons for quests that have not been encountered do appear and a lot of them are just a lone person standing in the wilderness; something you’d never notice unless you happened to be near them. I can think of slicker ways to do the same thing, but it’s an improvement over earlier games, so I’m not griping about it.

Fast-travel within major areas seems to be pretty much limited to getting back to or between camps. On the whole, I find it a good compromise. Since you’re only allowed to carry 8 healing potions for the whole party and your potions can only be restocked at a camp, it’s a practical approach to the problem. There is enough hoofing around that everyone will have ample opportunity to enjoy the scenery.

Inventory management isn’t much improved over DAO. Barring expending a perk point to increase carry weight, the whole party will be covered by a single allowance. For my character, that’s a flat 80. But like DAO, that’s not 80 pounds. It seems to be 80 items (stacks seem to count as a single item and ingredients don’t seem to count at all). Since I’m a mage, I don’t have perks that increase my carrying capacity, so that appears to be my limit for the rest of the game.

Gold seems to be somewhat plentiful, but not enough so that I can buy everything that I want. Cashing in loot is just about the same as for DAO: schlep it back to some merchant and unload what you don’t want to keep. I don’t know if Inqusition will turn out to be modable in the same way that DAO And DA2 were. If it turns out to be, I’m expecting to see something along the lines of the Utility Sack appear on the Nexus fairly quickly (because inventory is really clunky).

I’ve reached a point where party members have begun to banter with each other (I’m still with the three you start with). Voicing is very well done. Each NPC has a distinct personality and Varric is pretty much the same as from DA2, still a bit of a cynic, and will likely become just as annoying as he did in DA2. On the whole, though, I like him. Major kudos to the devs for lightening the atmosphere.

Crafting is a fairly simple activity. Most weapons and armor can be improved through the addition of bits and pieces that you can find or purchase here and there. They must be taken to a crafting station to be added to the item and there is only one such station at this point in my game. I suspect that others will appear as I expand accessible areas, so it’s not going to be too much of a hassle. Potions are craftable at any Inquisition camp, though. At least that’s what I’m seeing, but take that with a grain of salt as it’s still very early in the game (I’m currently Level 5 and am still working through the first area that I could access).

Quest grinding is going to be a major activity for most players. Lots of short quests involving a lot of running around looking for stuff. And there are plenty of them to do, so don’t be expecting a short game. I’m still on the fence on whether most of these are necessary or not, but they certainly add to the play time and completionists will be at this for a long, long, long time.

Remembering that last time that I purchased a newly released Bioware game and the botched abortion of an ending experience that it provided, I’m going to take the same “First Impressions” approach to Dragon Age: Inquisition and just reel it off as I get to it. Don’t be expecting finely crafted wordsmithing. But I’ll try to be as thorough and open about it as I can be. After all, I’m still of the opinion that Mass Effect 3 was (is?) an excellent game. Just whack off the last 10 or 15 minutes, boil them in acid, bury them in the jungle for a few centuries, then dig ‘em up and shoot whatever survived into the sun. Maybe in a different solar system, though. Wouldn’t want to wipe out life on Earth in an accidental case of solar indigestion.

Prior to playing, I took advantage of the World State generator at Dragon Age Keep. Since I did not save any of my DAO, Awakening or DA2 characters and did not feel like doing a complete playthrough prior to launching Inquisition, I went through each panel of the tapestry and set each story point as best as I could remember them. Short version is that my first playthrough on all three games was a “bunnies and rainbows” kind where I tried to give everyone a happy ending, or as happy as possible given the choices. About the only oddity was that my first DAO character was female and I wanted to import her into Awakening, so I let Alistair make the ultimate sacrifice. In keeping with that, my Inquisition character is a female Dalish mage (which was not an option in the earlier games).

SPOILER WARNING

Since I’m talking about a game as I go through it, there will undoubtedly be some story points included. I am not trying to do anything remotely resembling a walkthrough, so I will try to leave plot events and decisions off of the page, but something might slip through. Be warned.

END SPOILER WARNING

From the get-go, I am not getting great framerates out of Inquisition. Low 40s is about average and it drops into the low 30s when there are lots of NPCs in the area. I suspect that it’s time to rebuild this creaking rig. Perhaps Santa will be nice, but I’m not holding my breath on it, so I’ll make do with what I have.

Graphically, I’m reasonably impressed. At 1920 x 1080 and a mix of High and Ultra settings (full-blown Ultra would undoubtedly drop my framerates down into the 20s and 30s), the game is gorgeous. Textures are crisp and sharp. Underlying meshes are very clean. I noted that my character changed costumes three or four times in the space of a few seconds worth of cut-scenes, so there’s some sloppy CGI going on in there somewhere. I also note that once I was able to access inventory, what my character was wearing on the inventory screen bore little resemblance to what she was wearing in-game.

The game threw a couple of DirectX errors and crashed shortly after the first boss battle and again shortly after regaining control of my character after the forming of the Inquisition. Both happened during conversations. I don’t know if they are related, but my initial impression is that they are. Thanks, Bioware.

Camera controls are very similar to DAO, so not a huge learning curve on that end. Wearing a smooth spot on my RMB, though. Combat controls are definitely different from DAO (haven’t messed with DA2 in a long time, so won’t trust my memory on this one). On the whole, I’m finding them to be a mixed bag. Some parts are a bit smoother, but the party micromanagement end of things is exceptionally clunky. Clunky to the point of dying several times during the first boss battle (on Normal difficulty yet). Lost control of the camera a few times at critical points during the battle, so people who needed aid weren’t able to get it in time.

Controls function somewhat differently. For those who are used to the DAO keymappings, I’d recommend immediately remapping Pause to the spacebar and jump to the CTRL key. Object activation happens with the F key rather than the normal LMB, so several instances of trying to help someone or open a container ended up firing off attacks instead. Not pretty.

Character animations are much nicer than DAO (and DA2, if memory serves). More lifelike and smooth. Facial expressions are also much better. Had a few instances of Varric’s right foot dropping through the ground during conversations, so he was constantly straightening himself back out again, but it’s all pretty minor stuff thus far.

On the whole, it’s pretty decent and I’m not feeling like I wasted the $70 (Digital Deluxe Edition). More to come as I get to it. Happy gaming.

OK, the Steam Summer Sale has been over for a few weeks. I bought a few games that turned out to have little appeal once I sat down behind the keyboard with them, but that’s kind of how it goes sometimes. It’s not that they were bad games, just that they weren’t really my cup of tea. Maybe I’ll get around to reviewing some of them at a later point, but “if you can’t say anything nice…” does have a certain applicability here. One game that I picked up on a lark was EA’s “The Sims 3”. Well, the $6 price tag definitely added to that, but it was almost completely an impulse purchase.

Not having played “The Sims” or “The Sims 2”, the only life-sim experience that I have to compare it to are a couple of offerings from Deep Silver called “Singles” and “Singles 2: Triple Trouble”. There is a guide for Singles 2 on my game guides site (“Singles” was only kind of “meh” for me), but it isn’t linked from anywhere other than Deep Silver’s forums due to its AO rating and my lack of interest in implementing the necessary code for making my other guides work with parental controls. If anyone is interested in looking, it’s not hard to find if you think about the URL directory structure of my main site. But that’s kind of an aside to the point that I have very little experience with life-sim games, so my look at “The Sims 3” is from a fairly inexperienced perspective. With that in mind, here is the quick-n-dirty short version:

Story: n/a (there really is no story – you make up your own as you go)

Technical: 5 (there are lots of unpatched “gotchas” in there – on a 5-year-old game)

Graphics: 9.5

Gameplay: 8.5

Sound: 10

Replay: 10

Overall: 8.5 (Very Good for the price I paid)

First out of the chute is the issue of game clients. I purchased the game and a couple of expansion packs from Steam at the time of the Summer Sale. They installed and ran with no problems aside from the game not recognizing my 1920×1080 screen resolution and not  knowing what to do with quality settings due to my card being newer than the game. Once launched, it took all of about a minute to fix that problem. A week or so later, Origin had a 70% off sale on The Sims 3 and its related goodies. Whether this was in competition with Steam or in preparation for the launch of The Sims 4 around Labor Day is irrelevant. The base game was good enough and their sale prices were low enough that I picked up most of the other expansion packs and ran into my first major headache: game version incompatibilities.

This had not been a problem with games released prior to Origin’s launch. DLC for other EA games like Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect/Mass Effect 2, Neverwinter Nights and the like installed just fine regardless of which client was used for the base game, so I have some of those games running through Steam and some running through Origin and have had almost zero problems with this kind of setup. Not so with The Sims 3. Content purchased through Steam will only install on top of the Steam-installed game and content purchased through Origin will only install on top of the Origin-based game. Major aggravation!

There were a couple of things that made this less of a headache. First, I already had an Origin account and didn’t have a problem with using the Origin client. But some gamers absolutely detest Origin. If you fall into this category, then this is an issue that will be important to you and I’d recommend passing up this game until such a time as you can pick it up cheaply on Steam. The normal retail pricing of the game and its expansions is frankly way too high to be buying it at this point in its development cycle (buying everything at normal pricing will set you back about $400). Second, EA recognized my Steam product keys when I registered the game and expansions at The Sims 3 website, so my Steam purchases were available through Origin, too. In order to use the new expansions, I had to migrate the game to Origin, ran into several headaches in the process and ended up writing a Steam Guide on how to do it with a minimum of pain and suffering.

On the initial installation, I ran into problems installing bonus content from the Sims 3 Store. This eventually required that I completely uninstall the game (which is a tedious process under Origin), download everything again (an 8-10 hour process which required a bit of babysitting), reinstalled it and got the problem mostly fixed. Not “fixed” or “completely fixed” because there are still five or six things that will not install, but it’s not worth the pain to get them into the game.

Once reinstalled, I ran into several unpatched glitches. If this were a newly released game, I’d be a bit more forgiving of them, but we’re talking about a game that was released close to five years ago. That some of these issues remain unpatched is completely unacceptable, hence the abysmal “Technical” rating.

For example, the “Generations” expansion pack added a “Grounded” punishment for teen Sims who get into serious trouble (in my teen’s case, it was being busted by the police for being out after curfew). This confines them to the home lot. If they want/need to leave the home lot, they go into a sneaking animation. Since going to school involves leaving the home lot, my teen had to sneak off to school and got stuck in that sneaking animation, even after being let off the hook on the grounding. As another example, my Sims’ mailbox would not empty (the “Get Mail” option would not go away in spite of my getting mail about 30 times in a row) and the only way I could clear the problem was to move to a new house. Some of the character pathing is horrendous. For example, the shortest route to a community lot might be to get out of the car and walk onto the lot, but my Sim gets out of the car, runs to the corner of the lot and then runs halfway around the lot to the other corner to find an “acceptable” entrance. Under normal circumstances this might not be such an issue, but since Sims age up and eventually die, time is a finite resource and a lot of it is wasted on inefficient pathing. So on the whole, I’m not horribly thrilled at EA’s lack of effort on fixing these issues. None of them is really game-breaking, but they’re all horribly annoying and seriously detract from the experience of the game.

Graphically, the game is great. I’ve run into a few minor clipping issues on pieces of clothing or hair and a few water-reflection oddities, but on the whole, it’s superbly done. I get excellent performance out of my GTX 760 with everything cranked up to max settings. The minimum specs aren’t much higher than whatever is needed for the underlying operating system and go as low as GT 5900 for nVidia, so the game should run fairly well on just about any rig made in the last ten or twelve years. I should caution, though, that low-end systems are going to run at low-end settings.

I’m not as thrilled about the gameplay, though, mainly because the user interface leaves a lot to be desired. For example, edge-scrolling is almost a must if you’re going to be able to see any reasonable level of detail, but EA insisted on sticking notifications in a place that either demands immediate action or risk scrolling away from your Sim’s location. Your Sim has a multi-function cell phone that is accessed from the inventory screen. But you’ll be spending most of your time on the other screens, at least until the phone starts ringing. Your phone always seems to ring right in the middle of something that you’re trying to do (like fixing a broken faucet, keeping your Sim from starving, or Woo-hoo’ing with your significant other), requiring more clicking around to deal with that issue so you can continue dealing with the more important matters at hand. Oh, and your phone has a tendency to randomly break, kind of like any other usable object in the game, but it’s the one item that you cannot fix, regardless of your Handiness skill level.

Objects that you pick up immediately switch you to your inventory, even if you already know what it is that you picked up and didn’t need to see it again. Multi-level buildings/lots present their own set of challenges since your mouse’s scroll wheel controls the zoom level, forcing you to do even more clicking around to bring stuff into view. And there is no scrolling out to map view or in from map view. I’m not sure why the devs didn’t include that feature, but its absence forces a bit more unnecessary clicking around. All in all, the user interface could have been much better and it can really break your game immersion at times. It’s not completely horrid, but it’s annoying enough to warrant its own “honorable” mention and did count heavily in the grade for gameplay.

The game includes lots of little side-quests, mostly of the “go there and do that” variety that most RPG-ers are familiar with. Depending on which expansions you have installed, a few of them are glitched to the point of unplayability (they can be cancelled, but cannot be completed). Some are still not patched by EA, but the vast majority work as intended.

About the only other major gameplay detractors are the loading screens and the time it takes to save your game. You won’t have mess with loading screens unless you have expansions like “University Life”, “World Adventures”, “Island Paradise” or “Into the Future” installed as your Sim can’t travel to a different neighborhood (although you have the option of moving to another city). In those cases, the loading times involved with travel are horribly long. And this was apparently seen as a problem because the developers gave you eye candy and “find the object” loading screens to keep you occupied while it happens (you can opt out of that in settings, but it will make those load times even more annoying).

Saving your game takes about a minute or more (real time). My understanding is that the game saves the entire game world rather than just object states and locations like other games and this is what causes the long save times. That was a design decision, knowing that expansions were going to be marketed, rather than an unanticipated consequence, so points off for that. Also, there is no autosave feature. This may be either a blessing or a curse, depending on your game’s stability. I’ve had a few CTD’s which have cost me several hours of play. The game is somewhat modable and there is a mod out there that will pop up a reminder every so often, but the decision to go with this kind of a save system can definitely work to your disadvantage and the devs did not plan accordingly.

The game’s sound is outstanding. There is enough variety in the background music that it doesn’t become completely mind-numbing and there is enough of a selection of genres that almost every player will find something that will appeal to them. Depending on which expansions you have installed, the musical offerings will vary. The ambient sounds are realistic to each situation, so major kudos to the sound design team for tying it together so seamlessly. One addition from “University Life” (the ability of Sims to get up on soapboxes and shout through megaphones) is completely annoying at times and should likely have been confined to the campus, but that’s a gameplay issue rather than a sound issue. I can hear those megaphones just fine; I often wish that I couldn’t.

Each Sim has a voice, but they’re drawn from a very limited pool of voice talent, so that part gets a little repetitive. Also, I’m not a huge fan of the contralto range and there is one female voice that I find a bit grating at times, but it’s not something that seriously detracts from my gaming experience; it’s just rather distinctive so it stands out from the crowd. Overall, though, the voicing is superb and I have no idea how the voice actors manage to pull it off so well in a completely nonsense “language”.

Considering that there is no story to follow other than the one that you’re making up as you go along, the game probably has more replayability than almost anything else out there. You’re only limited by a few factors: the number of towns that you can start in (which depends on which and how many expansions you add on – only two through the base game and one’s a download) and the limits of your own imagination. Beyond that, the game’s design and mechanics let you weave your own tale that stops only when you do. The game is engaging enough that it will match up with almost any playing style from the casual gamer who wants to goof around for a little while (keep those loading times in mind) to the obsessive gamer who won’t budge from the keyboard for hours at a time to anything in between. All in all, gamers who are interested in this kind of game will have found yet another bottomless hole into which to pour their time (and money – we’re talking EA here).

If we were looking at normal retail pricing, I would not recommend this game except to true Sim-fanatics. The bang-for-the-buck just isn’t there when you consider that MSRP was about $40 a pop for the expansion packs and stuff packs. But the game is now five years old and it can be had on-sale at $10 a pop or less, so I’ll move it to the “highly recommended” list. Keep in mind that the whole shooting match will cost about $400 at non-sale prices today, but only a bit more than $125 if you can wait for sales.

I should point out that “The Sims Medieval” is not an expansion pack for “The Sims 3”, even though it was released after “The Sims 3”. Rather it is a stand-alone game that uses the same engine and gaming mechanics.

The Sims 4 is due out in about six weeks at a MSRP of $70. EA will likely follow their previous strategy of expansion packs and stuff packs every few months, so Simmers who gotta have it all will likely sink close to a thousand into it by the time it’s all said and done. On a price-per-hour of entertainment basis, MSRP just doesn’t hold up in my mind.

Final judgment: 8.5. It’s a great game at sale prices and well worth the addition to your game library. If I had paid AAA prices, I’d be much less forgiving and only give it a resounding “meh”.

“Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag” was released about 10 days ago for PC (it unlocked somewhere in the wee hours on the 20th in my time zone). This was about a month after its release for consoles, so the game has been out for well over a month. I’m doubtful that any review of mine would be particularly newsworthy, but I’m going to do it anyway.

Story: 8

Graphics: 8.5

Gameplay: 8.5

Sound: 9

Replay: 9

Overall: 8.5

From a story standpoint, Ubisoft must have been doing some major head-scratching after the conclusion of AC3 as they had killed off Desmond Miles, the meta-protagonist of the other AC games. Without giving away too much (like spoilers are really an issue at this late date), they found a work-around to the problem that also opened the door to doing games set in other time periods while still keeping Desmond in the picture, but in the background.

It will be interesting to see what Ubisoft does with this in the future, but their solution struck me as an ingenious approach to the problem, so mega-kudos to the writing team for figuring out how to get out of the corner they appeared to have painted themselves into. In-game hints abound with tantalizing ideas for a Wild West setting (think “Red Dead Redemption” with Assassins), but those are just in-game ideas that may or may not bear fruit in the future. Should it pan out, you heard it here first. Otherwise it’s just semi-coherent blather.

In many ways, Ubi seems to be trying to break out of the mold that they created for themselves with AC and AC2 (and its progeny). Yes, the game is set in an interesting historical period. Yes, there is still the Assassins vs. Templars thing going. Yes, you still get to mess around with wrist blades, smoke bombs, and other cool gear. Yes, you still do a lot of running around, jumping onto and off of stuff, climbing, and the rest. So to that extent, the game is still very much an Assassin’s Creed title. But on the other hand, that whole Assassins vs. Templars thing seems to be taking a back seat to being a pirate. And this really strikes me as being a third-person pirate-shooter in the AC universe.

The game is much more open-world than earlier games. I am not including AC3 in that assertion since I have yet to play much more than the first few missions (Connor isn’t even a twinkle in his daddy’s eye according to my last save). I’ll probably go back to that at some point now that I’ve played around with Black Flag, but there are still a few annoyances with Black Flag.

First, I really like exploration. This is probably one of the reasons why I have spent so much time with Bethesda games. They really turn you loose to go see what there is to see and do what there is to do and you aren’t tied to anything in particular. AC4 has a lot of those elements, but even being into Mission 7 of the main quest, there are still parts of the world that are closed off (as in “area unavailable” or “not available in the current memory”). It seems to me that many of those areas could have been open from the get-go with the mission triggers being absent until they were needed. I mean, really, what’s so hard about simple conditions check to see whether the actors and other mission accoutrements need to be placed and activated or not? Of course because I haven’t progressed far enough in the game to be able to see those areas, I can’t be sure that there aren’t some built-in problems with them, but considering that I was able to get to Kingston, Jamaica a long time before it was needed, it just strikes me as odd that some areas are off-limits so late in an open sandbox game.

Another annoyance, and a borderline game-killer, are the “raid the warehouse” missions. I stumbled onto those well outside of the main mission, only a short time after getting the Jackdaw. After sneaking and stabbing my way through, I cleared out the warehouse only to find myself stuck afterward; just standing there, unable to move or do anything with the picture slightly fuzzed out. There are a couple of work-arounds, but it’s a problem that crops up with each of these missions. This strikes me as shoddy coding and something that should have been caught in QA before the game was ever released for PC.

The third major annoyance are the optional requirements for 100% memory sync. Until you do something that meets or partially meets those requirements, you don’t really know about them. For example, you’re supposed to air-assassinate an ocelot in the first hunting mission in order to get 100% sync. But the mission only told you to get two ocelot pelts. When you get the first one, you get a message telling you that you still have one more to go and that’s the first time I recall seeing the air-assassination requirement. Since 100% memory sync is among the official achievements, this comes across as “let’s see how frustrating we can make the game” rather than good design.

A last annoyance, and I’m not sure whether this was intended or just bad luck on my part, is the weather. The game world has dynamic weather. Sometimes it’s sunny, sometimes it’s cloudy, sometimes it’s raining and sometimes you’re in the middle of a hurricane or something. The major storm conditions only appear while you’re at sea, though. The problem is that the storms appear to pop up out of nowhere. You might start naval combat in absolutely lovely weather conditions, but end up having to not only dodge enemy fire, but also have to dodge waterspouts and damaging waves within a couple of minutes. This is particularly the case when attacking forts. I’m honestly not sure whether this is something that is scripted into these missions or whether I just have the most horrible luck, but it’s one of the more frustrating things to happen on the open sea.

Like other games in the series, Black Flag requires a lot of grinding. For example, I can’t count the number of times that I got myself sunk or killed while trying to capture a Man o’ War. I didn’t need the Man o’ War for anything to progress the story or to upgrade anything. Instead, I needed it to open trade routes in the “Kenway’s Fleet” minigame (which is almost a game in itself). After finally getting a couple, I still find that I need better ones as some trade routes require having larger cargo capacity. Until I get one, I couldn’t say whether I’m missing out on something in-game.

That minigame, though, was a very interesting addition. Thanks to the companion app (available at no extra cost for iPad and Android tablets), gamers can take aspects of the game with them, and probably should. The minigame plays out in real time. Ships captured in the regular game become available for use in the minigame, which can be played during a lunch or coffee break. Some of the treasure maps (fortunately not ones leading to ship upgrades) are only available through this minigame.

Leaving annoyances aside, what did Ubisoft get right? The short answer is almost everything.

Graphics are excellent. I’ve had a few issues with how it renders distant actors, but I’ll chalk that up to my running beta rather than released drivers. Sound, too, is excellent. Being somewhat a product of the folk movement, the addition of shanties was a very pleasant surprise.

From a story standpoint, I did not find myself getting into Kenway’s character as much as I did Ezio’s. At my stage of the game he has no firm allegiance to either side of the Assassin-Templar conflict. He’s just in it for the loot; very mercenary. This likely changes toward the end of the game as I know a bit about what happens in AC3, so it stands to reason that it needs to happen at some point. Again, the over-arching story seems to be taking a back seat to the “Arrrr, matey!” pirate stuff.

Leaving aside the annoyance of finding parts of an open-sandbox world being closed off, the game delivered quite nicely on the promise of seamless transitions. Almost all of the game takes place outdoors. With a few exceptions, loading screens are completely absent from the game. Kenway moves from ship to shore and back again fluidly and with no noticeable lag. There are a few areas where rain continues to fall in areas where you might expect it not to, but you’d only notice because it doesn’t fall in most areas with overhead shelter.

Keeping my earlier comments about grinding for resources in mind, the naval combat end of the game is very well done. Ship-to-ship combat is very fluid and relatively simple to control. Ship-to-shore combat is somewhat more complicated, but still fluid. Some of the finer points, such as how to use Heavy Shot instead of Round Shot is not well-explained within the game and naval tactics is something that you have to learn by trial and error. This is another of those aggravating instances where the developers did not do a good job of documenting controls or much else. It took a bit of searching around on the Internet to find what I needed to know. Thanks and kudos to IGN and Wikia for picking up the developers’ slack in these areas.

Moving to land-based operations, the combat system works well. It retains much from earlier AC titles and adds a few new toys, like blow darts, to the mix. Countering and disarming strike me as a bit problematic in comparison to other titles, but combat proceeds fairly well. While I really enjoy the blow darts, they are a bit overpowered. I’m not urging a complete overhaul of their use, but keep in mind that they’re very effective and one can come to rely on them a bit too much. I think I’ve killed more people with blow darts than with anything else.

The stealth system got a major revamping from AC and the AC2 series. You really need to learn to use terrain and natural cover to your advantage to complete many missions. Used effectively, it’s now possible to complete the majority of missions without ever alerting your enemies to your presence. The fact that you can sneak and blow-dart your way through entire missions is very fun, although it shows that the enemy AI needs some major help. This is a complaint common to most stealth games, so I’m not doing a lot of finger-wagging on it.

All in all, Black Flag is extremely enjoyable and a fine addition to the series and give it an 8.5 out of 10.

Quill18, a YouTube’r that I watch occasionally, uploaded a short “Let’s Play” video of an indie game called “Game Dev Tycoon” about a week ago. The game was developed by Greenheart Games and was released about six months ago. A preview “Lite” version had been available for about six or eight months prior and a free demo version is currently available. The full version of the game is $8 and is can be purchased directly from the developers for Windows (up to Windows 7), Mac and Linux. If you are running Windows 8, you can purchase the game from the Windows Store. It will be available on Steam sometime in August. The developers promise Steam keys to current purchasers once it become available on Steam.

I haven’t been paying nearly as much attention to the indie scene as I used to and was simply amazed at the quality of the game. Keep in mind that “the indie scene” is only a comparatively recent thing in my mind. For a big chunk of the game’s time, the field was dominated by indies and major publishers were few. It is only recently that the field has become dominated by major houses and indies have become a bit of a backwater.

The game starts in the mid-1980s. In reality, video games predate that by close to 10 years and I don’t want to think about the number of quarters I shoved into “Pong” in the late 70s or into the likes of Pac Man and Donkey Kong in the early 80s. You are an aspiring game developer working out of your garage. Your aim is to dominate the video game market by releasing hit games, becoming a AAA game producer, developing and licensing your own game engines and eventually developing and selling your own hardware.

You have 30 years to reach your goal, but failure,in the form of bankruptcy, waits for the foolhardy. Along the way you will get to see some of the more notable (or forgettable) systems that have come and gone, choose platforms that meet your development and audience needs and crank out games of various types and genres. Easter eggs abound. For me, it was quite the trip down memory lane, although I am sure that younger gamers will look on a lot of this as being ancient history.

Story: 9.5 (“story” is a stretch – there is none; “premise” would be more accurate)
Graphics: 7
Gameplay: 7
Sound: 8
Replay: 10
Overall: 9.5 (not an aggregate or average)

Story: there isn’t much to tell beyond what I gave in the description. There is no story, just a premise for why you are doing what you are doing it. It’s a very good premise and the game supports it in every way. It’s simple, to-the-point, mostly believable and engaging.

Graphics: this is not a shooter or adventure, so don’t expect anything flashy. Simple 2D cartoony animations is about the extent of it. But it doesn’t require anything more, so that 7 is mostly just a heads-up that you shouldn’t be expecting anything eye-popping. The graphics fit very well with the rest of the game and it shouldn’t strain even a budget system.

Gameplay: there is a lot going on behind the scenes. You choose how to best allocate your development time into game engines, story-writing, quests, sound, gameplay, and the like. You will need to hire employees to help you reach your development goals and allocate their time and skills appropriately. You can focus on design features, go tech-heavy or try to strike a balance between the two. Choose your style, genre, platform, audience and engine components and crank out those games. Very straightforward, but not quite as simple as it sounds.

You will receive messages in the form of pop-ups that tell you about trends in the gaming world, new platforms being introduced, old platforms being retired, where you are in your development cycle and so forth. The low gameplay score is the result of the incessant pop-ups. Just when you’re ready to do something in-game, there is a pop-up that needs to be cleared so that you can continue what you’re doing. All in all, I found it extremely annoying to the point where it had a significant impact on my enjoyment of the game. For the most part, the news pop-ups occur at exactly the same points in time each time you play, so a suggestion to the developers would be to make the pop-ups appear the first time they are supposed to, but make them less intrusive in subsequent games (because there will be subsequent games – that 10 in Replay is there for a reason).

A second, and much more minor complaint has to do game responsiveness, or the lack thereof. Even though it’s likely that most players will be using a mouse to play, there is no right-click option. Everything is left-click and it is sometimes easy to miss your target. At times the game became very unresponsive. I had to dump out with the three-finger salute several times because the game stopped responding to the "<ESC> key. It didn’t happen very often and it mainly occurred when I was wanting to quit the game, anyway, but it unnecessarily raised the frustration factor.

Aside from the major and minor gripes, the rest of the gameplay was very smooth and very simple. This is not to imply that making it through the entire 30-years is simple (it isn’t), but it’s a sim and there is quite a bit of a learning curve on what’s OK at which times to keep yourself afloat, but that’s one of the major appeals of the game. It will certainly present a challenge the first two or three times you play through it. The subsequent challenge will be to repeat or surpass your earlier performance without becoming formulaic.

Sound: I’ll try to be fair on this. My wife found the sound to be exceptionally annoying. After an hour or so of playing, she would invariably come close the door so she didn’t have to listen to it. On the other hand, it didn’t bother me in the slightest. The music and sound effects fit very well within the context of the game and just kind of fade into the background. There is not a Grammy-winning soundtrack to be found here and it is repetitive. Like me, the player will probably just filter it out since they are engaged with the rest of the game. Like my wife, anyone else in the area might take issue with it. There are basic sound controls (master volume, music on/off, and sound effects on/off), so it’s not like there is nothing to be done for the rest of the house. Just be warned and maybe keep a set of headphones handy. All in all, the sound worked very well within the context of the game.

Replay: The game is not likely to become anyone’s obsession. It’s not horribly long. The whole 30 years can be knocked out in a handful of hours. Expect a lot of “What do you mean I’m bankrupt?!?” and reloading until you get the hang of it, though. The developers are continuing to make tweaks here and there, so I suspect that a lot of other people’s issues will get resolved before the team moves on to their next project. But in its current form, the game will definitely grab your attention, hold it and keep you coming back.

Overall: This is a great little game. If you’re into sims, you’ll get many hours of entertainment for less than the price of a matinee movie ticket, a late-release DVD or even a current-release CD. The game will keep you engaged and has a wonderful “just one more” feel to it that will keep you playing. In the words of one of the in-game reviews, “Quit reading and start playing.”

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).

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.