Author Archives: John Richard Albers
Bioshock: Infinite is the third hit from Irrational Games, and frankly the weakest of the three. I know saying that has just ignited a lynch mob and is bound to fill the comment section with people screaming STFU, but please hear me out.
I acknowledge wholeheartedly that Irrational has created a sweeping experience that slowly carries the player from a place of ignorance to one of enlightenment. It’s a long series of carefully placed clues intertwined with a satisfying story to bring us to the story’s twist (just as there was in Bioshock). And we as players get so bent on looking for and anticipating that moment of revelation that we’re willing to forgive and forget a lot, but it has to be said that the experience Bioshock: Infinite presents is simply not as solid as its forebears.
First, I’ll sing the game’s praises and hopefully tiptoe through the explanation of its weakpoints without giving away any spoilers. So allow me to give a stream of consciousness regarding my first few moments playing.
RAGE at paid day 1 DLC. I already paid a fucking arm and leg for the game, Xbox, and TV. I’m not throwing more money out for the DLC, Xbox Live, and internet when there was no reason other than greed on earth, heaven, and in hell for this business practice—Wow, cool music video! Fuck the season pass store! Rowing, rowing, rowing, learning I’m playing as Booker Dewitt, an ex-cavalryman who served at Wounded Knee. Being talked about like I’m not there by a couple of bickering Brits. Now I’m being stranded. Now I’m reading a threatening note from a creditor that can’t possibly have been placed in such a remote area by anyone other than an inhabitant. Find religious tripe. Repeatedly. Then, oh blue fucking Jesus, a man’s been tortured to death…which I suppose is historically appropriate for religion too. Alright, stuffed into a rocket, then shot into the sky—Where I find the sublime dream of an America that never was in gold, white, and blue. Is this heaven? Crap. They’re all Christian fanatics and I’m seeing triptychs and iconography reminding me of a combination of several cults and architecture pulled from major churches of the Latter Day Saints… This won’t end well.
Columbia, the city in the sky, is a metaphor (both in the glories presented and the evils hidden) of a society governed entirely by a unified religion. It’s a metaphor for the promised land that was the American Dream, and our character is a metaphor for the lowly immigrant who ventures across dangerous waters and uncertain circumstances for the hope that the dream is a reality. It contrasts sharply with Rapture from Bioshock, a forward thinking society that had cast out all religion. The subtext of Columbia, whether implied or just plain unavoidable, is that adherence to any one creed in word and not in deed brings about the same earthly evils as any society with or without a religion. The joke whose intentions I’m still questioning is that adhering to any creed in deed will bring about horrors of a different but equally terrible nature. It maintains both capitalist and segregationist overtones while presenting its citizens in a fashion that I think qualifies as uncanny valley.
Unlike in Bioshock, where you arrive to find Rapture already in ruin and are left to piece together in your mind the splendor of yesteryear, Columbia is filled with living, breathing citizens. They say a few words as you pass by. But you can’t respond. And their mood is both so peaceful and bland (reminding me of the Eloi from The Time Machine) that you realize the entire city (with its peoples) is based on The American Adventure pavilion at Epcot Center. There’s even an homage to it with an animatronic George Washington at the floating boardwalk. That in itself could be enough of a hook to pull us in. Sadly, it doesn’t really go anywhere. They all simply disappear when the shooting starts. There are no murmurs of dissent or slowly changing popular opinion as the game progresses and the city spirals further into dystopian ruin. It’s simply a stage early in the game that’s just as easily forgotten, and to match as gripping an experience as the first Bioshock requires that each element of the story and stage of the game lock together to create a tapestry that flows and moves, each piece of the utmost important to the whole.
That doesn’t happen here. You run across segregationists and ant-segregationists, and just leave them as you found them. The same with a floating version of the Ku Klux Klan that hails John Wilkes Booth as the slayer of the Great Tyrant. You are pulled in as a sort of Anti-Christ figure in their religious mythology, but you’re never given a choice. And since one of the major themes in Bioshock: Infinite centers around the choices we make and their consequences, being railroaded throughout the game just doesn’t make any sense. You are presented with a macrocosm of ideas, possibilities, and ideologies, but have only one way of doing things.
Take for example theft. There are areas in the game where you are guilty of theft and attacked if you pick up things off the ground. In other areas it’s considered scavenging and perfectly fine. I would happily pay for the items rather than steal them, but I’m not given the option. So I’ve gotta be branded a thief and kill a bunch of people unnecessarily.
On the other hand, I have many options when it comes to using my Vigors, Columbia’s version of Rapture’s plasmids. But I only use whichever one I currently have equipped since they all pretty much do the same thing. I can fling them directly at the enemy or use them as booby traps, firing with my gun all the while.
Gameplay in Bioshock: Infinite is diminished due to a lack of strategy. Your enemies all have guns. They shoot at you. That’s it. In Rapture my enemies were armed, unarmed, acrobatic, heavily-armored, navigating a maze of ruined art deco buildings and half-flooded apartments. My ammo was limited and my plasmids at best put me on even terms with the enemy. I had to hack cameras, turrets, and other gadgets and take advantage of semi-destructible environmental items to stay a step ahead of the hordes of crazies who wanted to use my skin as a dressing gown. Here I frequent a lot of docks and loading bays and shoot a lot of people screaming prayers, which is what people tend to scream when you’re walking around shooting at random. There’s no strategy. No puzzle-solving. And no story engagement since I don’t ever identify or get to know my enemies. In Rapture I almost pitied the psychotic splicers who had been driven over the edge of sanity by their own warped science.
The only time Bioshock: Infinite breaks from this mold is when you take the skyrails, mixing high-flying rollercoasters with shooting in a fashion I think was done first in the film Zombieland. Still fun as all get out, though. I restarted several times just to play the skyrails over again.
Since Vigors are not used to their full potential, there needs to be a game-changing element here. That element, or so I thought for the first half-hour, was Elizabeth, the quasi-dimensional Tails to your silent and repetitive Sonic. This is the closest to puzzle-solving that you run across. Elizabeth can open portals to other dimensions. She brings you money, salts, and ammunition. And she can even bring into this reality objects and architecture from other realities. But why, if we’re looking at an infinite number of outrageous possibilities, does this boil down to sentry turrets and skyhooks? A year before Bioshock: Infinite was released, Irrational claimed that Elizabeth would be doing crazy things like dropping freight trains onto enemy’s heads and knocking down walls with speeding firetrucks popping out of thin air. They’re working with quantum mechanics and postulating the infinite universes theory here. They could literally pull from anything their sick, twisted little imaginations come up with, and the best they can do is sentry turrets? That’s throwing pearls before swine!
The graphics are breathtaking, and Bioshock: Infinite modulates the mood impeccably, especially when it has a nasty surprise in store, but there are thematic inconsistencies which taint what would otherwise be a satisfying experience. In Rapture, their entire society was based on casting aside their past and full steam ahead to a bright, unfettered future. That future came in the form of plasmids: a substance which could change your genetic makeup and give you unbelievable powers. Rapture’s rise, politics, economics, warring factions, and eventual downfall all revolved around plasmids. In Bioshock: Infinite, the presence of Vigors is not explained. They have no demonstrable impact on society. What’s worse, considering how hidebound and traditional Columbia’s society is, gamechanging elements such as Vigors should’ve been eschewed. Throw in quantum physics, religion, ancestor worship, capitalism, segregation, and there is, in other words, no singular lore to which Bioshock: Infinite ascribes in order to maintain a tight, cohesive world. Your storyline might move along quickly, but in order to plant the seeds of doubt in the player’s mind which anticipates the inevitable twist it sacrifices substance for glitz. Your voxophones, which are recordings you pick up that are meant to give you a greater scope of the world you find yourself in, only encompass a few main characters rather than helping to give the player a grassroots perspective of the situation.
Make no mistake; Bioshock: Infinite does many things well. The voice-overs and dialogue are toe-curlingly good. The character designs are tight. Animations flow believably. The storyline as a whole is radically different from the norm. It will be very hard for any newcomers to take the title from what’s rapidly shaping up to be game of the year. But it doesn’t top the original Bioshock.
And it makes you think in a bad way. While Bioshock made you spend a quiet afternoon pondering hidden meanings, Bioshock: Infinite will have you pounding your head against a wall trying to make sense out of pieces that don’t comfortably fit.
Lampoons our own preconceived notions of America.
|Cons:||Combat becomes repetitive. |
No unifying theme.
Elizabeth is a resource squandered.
|Game producer's website:||Irrational Games|
|Official website:||Bioshock: Infinite|
|Game available at:|
Those of you loyal to AlterGamer will recall the mash-up we did between free indie games Slender: The Eight Pages and Haunt, both of which feature the manmade monster Slender Man as their antagonist. In each game you employ a first-person shooter perspective and have nothing but a flashlight with which to defend yourself as you navigate an abandoned camp site with a dark history. On the way, you collect a number of pages, all the while attempting to avoid the faceless horror stalking you, coming closer and closer with each page you find.
Now, Parsec Productions, who made Slender: The Eight Pages, in conjunction with Blue Isle Studios, is going to be releasing Slender: The Arrival, projected to retail for $10. The final version of the game won’t be out until March 26th, but in the meantime we’ve had the chance to look over the beta version of the game.
It’s basically a paid version of Slender: The Eight Pages. The environment layout is similar, with twisted pine trees separating clearings that possess stereotypical camp site detritus (and one of the elusive eight pages you’re after). Graphically, we’re looking at a facelift on par with Haunt. Your environment looks prettier, but still manages to maintain the sense of foreboding that Slender: The Arrival’s predecessor is known for.
Your controls are smoothed over as well. Slender: The Eight Pages was slow and plodding in your movements. Haunt was quicker, but suffered from getting stuck on your environment when running. Here, you can be quick indeed, but you still get caught at crucial moments. Your flashlight is more useful. You can focus the beam, allowing you to pin Slender Man in place for a short while, which prevents some of the cheaper moves he attempts.
A new addition to the gaming experience is Slender Man’s ability to interact with his environment. When exploring the office building that we all know and dread getting stuck in, Slender Man will sometimes lock you in with him. I’m honestly on the fence as to whether that could be regarded as cheap or galvanizing. It’s probably a bit closer to the cheap side when all you need to do to beat the game is explore the map first so Slender Man won’t jump you, then collect all the pages at a dead sprint.
The big question is, of course, is it scary? Not really.
True, there is a tightening in your chest as you collect one page after the next and Slender Man begins to close on you. But the high quality of the game works against itself. There’s a well-composed soundtrack which is always barely perceptible. The presence of music in itself is more comforting than the stark, unsettling silence that was utilized in Slender: The Eight Pages.
And, like Haunt, when Slender Man is bearing down on you your screen fuzzes over and warps out of true, as if the presence of Slender Man is somehow eating away at the player’s sanity. This has the unfortunate consequences of making it unnecessarily difficult to get away because you can’t see where you’re going. It also lets you know when you’re safe, effectively killing the suspense inherent in never knowing where and when Slender Man will appear.
So, while there is a low-level worry involved with the fear of the unknown, what with not knowing Slender Man’s motives or origins, the main draw of the game (which is to say shock value from Slender Man popping up and hunting you down) is not nearly as strong as in Slender: The Eight Pages.
We’ll keep you posted if the final game is any better than the beta, but right now it would probably behoove you to download the free Slender: The Eight Pages for a scarier experience.
Lara Croft rises from the grave more often than the undead creatures whose tombs the little British minx just can’t seem to stop raiding. And, like all reclusive near-alcoholic failing authors with paradoxical inferiority and god complexes, I took my first step to manhood with a gander at Lara’s two rather boxy protuberances at chesticular height. It’s been close to fifteen years since Sir Mixalot sang about PILFs and liking big polygons, but it’s comforting to know some things never change in Tomb Raider: you’ll die at the drop of a hat.
There are currently three kinds of property. The first can be referred to as real-estate or lands owned. The second a delightfully antiquated word such as chattel, or moveable property, encompasses. It is the third which is rapidly becoming more complex and variegated in our society: Intellectual property. Intellectual property is intangible, and therefore difficult to establish a concrete definition for. Intellectual property and its protection made up 34.8% of the American gross domestic product for 2012 alone. And that percentage is projected to keep increasing.
There are a number of subdivided laws designed to regulate intellectual property: Copyright, Patent, Trademark, and Trade Secret to start with. The problem we are experiencing is that creativity does not begin in a vacuum. For one invention to be made, it must incorporate other patented inventions. For one book to be written, it must incorporate character archetypes and story concepts that have been presented countless times before in other copyrighted books. Where then does one draw the line?
As a child of the late eighties and early nineties, there are a few horror franchises which stick in my mind. Though I was probably too young to be exposed to them, and hence the nightmares, I recall such villains as Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Pinhead, and the nameless xenomorph from Aliens. Somehow, knowing the nature of the creatures made them less dangerous. I could sleep at night because the horror of these abominations had been expounded upon and defined.
Except the alien. Its sheer otherness never ceased to send chills down my spine. I suspect it’s much the same with others, accounting for the massive fanbase which the Aliens franchise has maintained since 1979. At the arcade, it was always plain to see that the dark, brooding quality of the unknown xenomorph appealed to other gamers; the line was usually three nerds deep.
Aliens: Colonial Marines was first announced in 2001. It’s been quite a wait. And now that I’ve had a chance to play it, I know the nightmares that tormented my sleep have eased their way on ichorous talons into the waking world. And not in a good way.
Story: You play as USCM member Corporal Christopher Winter, a jarhead who is thawed out of cryostasis along with your task force on the Sephora. Your story takes place following the events of Aliens 3 and is considered official Aliens universe canon. A distress signal sent by an unknown Marine on the planet LV426, late of the USCM vessel Sulaco, claims the initial Marine contingent sent to LV426 to investigate allegations of a xenomorph infestation is entirely KIA. Once you begin to board the Sulaco, you and your fellow Marines find yourselves neck deep in it when you are attacked by Weyland-Yutani PMC mercenaries for (404 error: plot point not found).
With your own task force facing heavy casualties, you, your constant smartgunner companion O’Neil, and a few other survivors (despite there being hundreds of other Marines aboard the Sephora, you never see them) do what Marines do best and work to stay alive while being heavily outgunned by PMCs and hunted by the ever-present danger of xenomorphs. The shooting eventually takes you down to the surface of LV426 where you tread where the heroes of the film Aliens once trod in a vain attempt to make some sense of the situation.
For reasons never fully understood, your task force was lured to the surface of LV426, where the Weyland-Yutani corporation has set up shop and been studying the xenomorphs for their own cruel yet unexplained purposes.
And then you fight your way back onto a ship headed offworld, where the credits roll before you ever have a sense of just what the hell happened.
Twelve years ago, this game was first conceived of. Six years ago, it went into production. You’d think someone would’ve sat down and thought about how best to portray events to galvanize players. No clear antagonist is ever established. No genuine purpose for your task force being attacked is given. It’s like you’ve just been through a thriller film and it ends before that all important moment where the hero explains the plot linking apparently unrelated events into a coherent narrative.
Repeatedly throughout the game the spirit and bravado of the Marines is called upon as the driving force for mortal men and women to face death and barrel headlong into it with a dirty grin. You spend the entire game being given orders by your CO and working to survive with O’Neil, but not once do these characters ever become more than two-dimensional archetypes. You don’t know their history. You never interact in a meaningful way. Feats of heroism and sacrifice abound, but without the depth of humanistic qualities to give it all a reason, it passes by the player without inducing a single thought or genuine emotion. Millions of dollars and countless man hours were spent on this production, and it all amounts to the death of storytelling in video games.
Gameplay: In a word: terrible. What could be a survival horror masterpiece, facing the unknown terrors of the xenomorphs and the merciless onslaught of PMCs, constantly on the back foot, running, gunning, using your head, constantly a step away from death, amounts to a one-player version of Quake.
The AI is beyond trash. Xenomorphs, those needle-toothed deathbringers that terrified us on the silver screen, are reduced to zerg rushing players. They don’t use walls or ceilings. They don’t use camoflauge. They simply charge you on sight and allow you to gun them down en-masse, making for an enemy slightly less dangerous than the old-school zombies from Doom. And that’s in cases where they don’t get hung up on the environment or blip across the screen. PMCs, your only other enemy in the game, have got about the same level of skill, either running forward to blast you at close quarters or falling over themselves trying to turtle behind cover. They would be easy to overcome if the AI of your own allies weren’t as equally abysmal.
I remember my first novel attempt. It presented a grim yet kooky fantasy landscape in which a young boy’s village was destroyed and he was forced to seek out the evil undead king responsible, collecting various MacGuffins in the process. It seemed original for about a month. Of course, I was twelve then and have since learned.
Ville and Anne Mönkkönen, a husband and wife team who make up Instant Kingdom, were both by their portraits online somewhere in their mid-twenties when they began designing Driftmoon seven years ago. That then begs the question of why they didn’t have second thoughts about centering their game around a story which a child quickly realized was walking down an unbelievably well-trod road.
Being a critic is a strange thing. If you think about it, it amounts to being a mouthpiece for an industry. Developers create games, companies distribute them, PR firms market them, and then critics both professional and amateur must assess them to help the consumer know whether or not they will like the game. If the game is good, all goes well: the critic touts the virtues of the product and the public buys it. If the game is not good, the critic is placed in a difficult position. If he’s an amateur, he likely doesn’t have a very large readership, but he has the luxury of speaking his mind. If he’s a professional, he’s biting the hand that feeds him by interrupting the normal flow of business, possibly leading to his termination.
So then, the most logical solution for this problem is to have developers only make good games. That of course is not as easy as it sounds. For one thing, praise cannot be given constantly or else it ceases to have value. Criticism likewise cannot appear heavy-handed, or else the critic runs the risk of being mean-spirited when in actual fact he’s expecting other members of the industry to have the same thick skin he’s undoubtedly developed over the years of dealing with an editor. So I, like many others, am left to try to find some happy medium between integrity and maintaining the normal flow of business.
Anodyne is a game that tests that medium.
Geralt of Rivia is back, more battle-scarred, jaded, and STD-ridden (probably) than ever. The Witcher series has collectively won in excess of 200 awards and sold more than 5 million copies worldwide. And now the third installment is looming on the horizon, slated to drop the second quarter of 2014, though one can’t help but wonder how optimistic that is considering developer CD Projekt RED hasn’t actually found a publisher yet. Feels like I’m announcing the success of my next book before I’ve even found a literary agent.
But we’re neck deep in the grit-stone-and-bone fantasy world of The Witcher; we don’t have time for rational solutions in the face of all the grim gory glory being thrown our way. Witcher 3: Wild Hunt features Geralt having regained his long-lost memory and finally found purpose to pick up his sword again: SEX! He remembers his sorceress lover and is intent on finding her. As one can expect when you’re on a quest to save the princess, shit happens in the meantime, most notably involving looking for the land’s rightful king in the Skellige archipelago in order to fend off the impending Nilfgaardian invasion. It’s all very cloak and daggery while your back is turned.
Studio Head Adam Badowski has gone on record as saying that they’re ready for the next step and are choosing to abandon the linear main quest supplemented by numerous side-quests archetype which has gotten them this far. What they’re after is the huge freedom of open-world games. Translation: “We’re making Skyrim 2.”
Rudimentary in-game economy, riding everywhere on horseback, using your own personal boat, crafting your own gear, open-world dynamics, and turning one enemy against another while either taking local quests or skipping them as you move from one grim-grey Northern landscape to the next is gist of what several dozen pages worth of interview material and buzzwords boil down to. But there’s one thing these guys are doing that sounds even remotely different from Skyrim: long-term storage stashes from inns so you don’t have to keep moving your stuff from one house to the next like a bad example of George Carlin’s monologue, “A place for your stuff.”
Am I speaking ill of The Witcher? Not at all. CD Projekt RED has demonstrated an exemplary ability to establish a compelling story and meld it with gameplay that takes a couple hundred hours before it gets old. Aside from the fact that their games always require the sort of top performance machine that costs the average player an arm, leg, and nut to own, Geralt’s saga treading the boards where all the world is his stage is definitely something to be excited about. The problem is that we’re jaded and have come to expect this high level of quality from them. And since Skyrim had the jump on them in terms of open-world adventure, that’s the benchmark they must meet and exceed come Q2 2014.
Sad that it took some of our competitors upwards of a dozen pages to say the same, isn’t it?
You wait your habitual long count of twenty after the door slams, staring up at the crazed ceiling with the odd bullethole and the deep, scorched scar leftover from the Maiden Handgrenaten case. Licksy’s signature mélange of BO and nicostix still assails your nostrils when it’s done. The air exchanger where the lower lobe of your left lung used to be does its job finally. You’d been mentally willing it not to wheeze while the dwarf fixer was in your office—for someone with such delicate feelings you’d think he’d do more to keep in clean clothes.
Cold, hard nuyen in the bank. Time to celebrate.
You tip your size 25 boots off your pre-fab desk and reach for the bottom drawer. The creak that erupts from your straining chair is echoed by the creaking of bones. Goblinization hit you harder than most. When the other juves in school were worrying about getting hair on their wedding tackle you were worrying about hiding the tusks and 80 kilos of extra muscle. Humanis policlub had ties with Shatogunda Corp back then, and the best you could hope for was Dad’s contract being terminated when they found out. That didn’t much matter when Dad turned out to be an ork too. You’d think a megacorp headed by a millennia-old dragon would be more willing to tolerate those caught in the fallout of magic returning to the world.
No synth-drek for you this time. Real bourbon. The hard stuff, still in the vacuum-sealed cylinder, is your reward. It glistens like red gold as it eases into the shot glass. That glass is smaller than your yellowed thumbnail, but the night is still young, the fires out in the Sprawl and gunshots closer to your little stomping ground have only just begun—take your time savoring it.
“Seems a little out of your price range,” a wry, feminine voice says.
In a flash, your Ares roomsweeper is out from under the desk, the bottle protectively in your other hand. Only then does the shot glass shatter against the bare ferrocrete floor. A willowy figure is standing in the corner, inspecting the hung pictures and clippings that are all you have to show for twenty years beating the harsh pavement as if the fragging mammoth of a battle shotgun isn’t even there. Long, silky black hair sweeps down a synthleather overcoat. High-heeled jackboots and slender, delicate hands are all you can see protruding from its folds. Too stiff to be decorative. Too scarred to be a corp-brat slumming it. Armored.
You hadn’t heard her come in. And that just didn’t happen. Not good.
“Dish,” you rumble, and set the bottle back in its protective sheathe. It’s meant to be disarming, but the smile out of the corner of her high-boned face tells you she knows you’re freeing your hands for action.
Blinding fast, she turns. Wired reflexes. You flick the shotgun into full-auto mode and let the ominous hum it emits speak for you.
“You’re Jack Hardt? Private investigator?” she asks, moving her hair out of her black, almond eyes. The chrome of a datajack glistens at her temple, but you’re more wary of the chrome peeking from the end of her left fist. Flick razors. She’s too high tech for a lowlife razorgirl.
“And you’re no five nuyen and a hit street samurai,” you return.
You stumble over your chair to keep her out of blade range as she sweeps forward to drop ceremoniously in front of your desk. Her eyes are looking for weakness, laughing and roving over the beaten up 2.5 meter rawboned body that fate deemed fit to bless and curse you with. She tips her head slightly in respect when she finds none.
“Feel free to speculate on what I am not,” she says, then switches to Navajo, a language from a past no one living knew of. “But it would be better for us if you did not think on what I am.”
The words sink in, and the controlled tension eases from your frame just as your heart grows heavier. The roomsweeper is placed carefully on the desk between you two, and you right your chair to sit down.
“So you’re putting together a run?” you sigh.
Her graceful head dips, and you see the tips of her ears peeking through her hair for the first time, confirming your suspicions.
“How much?” you ask.
Filmmaker George A. Romero is credited with, while not the first zombie film, the creation of the zombie survival and horror genre with his initial work Night of the Living Dead. This has been followed up with five sequels, each featuring another stage in society’s collapse under the onslaught of zombie plague, the standards of which he established as what is now widely accepted fact. Unlike other popular horror series, the zombie genre stands out as being deep and shallow in equal measure, relying less on a sense of fear in the viewer and more on a sense of despair in the face of shambling hordes. It works to drive home the notion that fighting death is futile, and those few survivors left on this wreck of a planet are on borrowed time. There’s also brain smashing.
Perhaps then it is surprising that all this subtext is incidental in the face of Romero’s original intention. He’s gone on record multiple times stating that zombies are just another way of expressing the consumerist mindset. Having worked retail and watched as shoppers shuffle from one rack to the next, wall-eyed, pawing at shit they don’t need, soiling themselves without batting an eyelid, and attacking others who aren’t like them with the intent of bringing them down to their subhuman level, I can only add that the difference is that you’re much more inclined to crush a shopper’s skull and leave a zombie to rot in peace.
You’ll find the same in The Walking Dead Episodes 1-5.