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Video Review: Metro Last Light


Review: Metro Last Light

Post-apocalyptic fiction is very commonplace today, available on every bookshelf, DVD collection and every video game console imaginable.  Post-nuclear exchange stories are easily the most visible of the entire genre, especially so since our species discovered a way to extinguish us within the span of just half an hour.  For the majority of these titles, however, the exposure most people experience comes from a Western point of view with creations like The Day After, Jericho, Alas Babylon and more giving us a capitalist nation perspective after the world has ended.  Thankfully, we have more Eastern fiction breaking into the marketplace today than ever before with experiences like Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro series bringing us a Russian perspective.

Two years ago a team of Ukranian developers formed by former employees of GSC Games World (STALKER series) released Metro 2033, based on the novel Glukhovsky published in Russia in 2005.  Glukhovsky went on to publish a sequel, Metro 2034, four years later but the plot and direction didn’t fit the pacing and nature required for a video game.  With 2033’s success as a sleeper hit, 4A Games and Glukhovsky teamed back up for Metro Last Light but, in an age in which single player games are far from the norm, does this next entry in the saga of life in Moscow after the bomb have the stuff to prove to publishers that a single player shooter doesn’t need multiplayer to be great?

Click to read the full review

Turmoil Below the Surface
Twenty years after a nuclear holocaust engulfed the planet, the last known survivors in Moscow, isolated from the rest of the world, hide in the tunnels of the former city’s metro.  In the two decades since, after the survivors realized that the government wasn’t going to return for them, a power struggle between a fascist division, a neo-Soviet communist movement and the various independent metro stations has whittled down the remaining members of humanity from two hundred thousand to barely a quarter of that.  To keep the war for power from expanding to the entire metro and to combat the growing threat of mutants born of the lethal surface radioactivity, the Sparta Rangers act as an independent faction, doing their best to instill peace and try to save our species.

In Metro 2033, players took on the role of Artyom, a child at the time of the nuclear fire who came of age in the cold concrete confines of the metro system.  Artyom journeyed throughout the metro to deliver a message to the leader of the Rangers and stop the Dark Ones, a new mutant threat that looked powerful enough to wipe us off the face of the Earth.  With his help, the Rangers discovered a legendary command and control bunker from the pre-war era known as D6 and were able to destroy the Dark Ones in a massive missile strike.  Only as the missiles began their flight did Artyom learn the truth however: the Dark Ones had been trying to reach out to humanity in hope of peace and he could do nothing as he watch the bombardment destroy their hive.

One year later, the events of that cold day on the irradiated surface still haunt him.  Artyom’s connection to the Dark Ones and his role as a Ranger conflict him within and it is only when Khan, a friend who helped guide him through parts of the metro a year prior, approaches him with the news that he saw a surviving child of the Dark Ones does he begin to feel that this last one just might be his chance to redeem himself for the sins he committed the previous year.  His journey will be just as hard as his first though: war is brewing in the metro as the legend of D6 has all but been confirmed by the other factions and it is clear that the one to take the bunker will control the entire metro system.

Artyom’s second video game story is, in many ways, an extension of what 4A Games attempted to do in 2010.  You will find yourself exploring new sections of the metro while trying to mitigate the threat that the Reich and Red factions pose on the safety and security of the remaining stations.  You will venture onto the surface and explore the ruins of Moscow.  You’ll interact with old comrades and new enemies alike.  What you won’t do is really explore a lot of new narrative ground.

In the twelve or so hours that you will put into your first run through Metro Last Light you will take note that, while some of the new elements really offer some interesting propositions as to character interaction and potential plotlines, a few don’t really deliver as promised.  Several plot twists that appear in the later parts of the game don’t exactly pay off that well and either were quite transparent from the beginning or are simply resolved in a quick and confusing manner.  In fact, the only unique plot element I found myself really enjoying was a late game companion character that, while I won’t detail specifically due to it being a spoiler, offered quite a unique take on the conflict within the metro.  Beyond that, however, I found myself wanting a deeper take on the metro universe and while I received that in some aspects by the end of the game, there were so many more that weren’t even approached.  We never get to take a look at Hanza, one of the major factions in the metro, the Children of the Underground are not even mentioned and we never get to see Artyom return to previously explored territory like Exhibition Station, Artyom’s home, a year after he left.  For me, there’s a lot that could have been explored and while I enjoyed the story 4A brought to the table, I wish it hadn’t been so direct and allowed me the chance to learn more about the universe.

Of Tunnels and Horrors

If there is something that can certainly be said about Metro 2033 it is that the gameplay was a love-it-or-hate-it one as its complexity was very polarizing.  The game’s stealth system could be confusing at times and the combat was a bit more balanced in favor of the enemies.  4A Games seems to have heard these complaints and have addressed them properly.

The game’s emphasis on stealth seems to have remained unchanged thankfully but the mechanics have seen some refinement.  Players can turn out or destroy most of the light sources found in the game and your watch has a light indicator to tell you just when you are hidden or exposed.  In addition, a music cue plays upon being glanced at by an enemy but a player that quickly move out of sight will reward the cautious by having the enemy ignore what they saw.  This system also extends to the mutants this time around as some areas that are overrun with them can be snuck through if the player is careful.

One of the more frustrating parts of Metro 2033 was the fact that stealth, at times, could be a bit of a crapshoot with human enemies.  This is probably the most improved aspect of Last Light as the AI seems to have been all but completely rewritten.  In a manner quite reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid 2, the enemy will investigate tripped alarms, strange noises and potential sightings of the player without going into a full alert mode, allowing the player some leniency.  Once fully spotted the enemy will warn his teammates and they will attack you in force.  In addition, tougher enemies will enter the area wearing heavier armor and potentially more deadly weapons.  If they lose track of you however they will enter a state of heightened alert, actively patrolling for you.  The system works very well and is easily one of the major new additions to the series.

In addition to new human AI, 4A has added in new mutant threats to be wary of.  2033 sadly limited most encounters to ones featuring Nosalises and Watchmen, huge mole and wolf/rat-like mutants respectively, and Last Light offers new additions to the arsenal.  Spiders, giant arachnids that are burned by exposure to light, replace the Lurkers as the principle hit-and-run foe and their environments are just as creepy as the sound of them crawling through the walls is.  Shrimps appear in water-focused environments and usually only attack when the player either gets too close or causes loud noises.  Last Light also sees the addition of mutant boss battles which are quite intense encounters.  While some of the previous species from Metro 2033 do not make an appearance, the roster this time around seems much more varied and offers some unique challenges to overcome.

One disappointing aspect that doesn’t seem to have been particularly updated is the weapon variety.  Though you won’t see any new weapons added to the arsenal (the fact that the Volt Driver isn’t in the game was a bit upsetting) the game now features a customization system to make up for this.  Whereas the previous game forced players to either locate or purchase upgraded weapons, this new title allows you to purchase sight, barrel and various other enhancements to your current weapon selection.  It’s a much needed new feature and definitely allows the player the ability to specialize far better than you could before but, given the narrative and gameplay possibilities that could have opened up by the game’s stronger emphasis on D6, one would have hoped to see a larger variety of weapons.

What amounts to being the best parts of Last Light’s gameplay are the ones that just haven’t changed.  The game retains the bullet currency system from the previous game and keeps the dynamic of forcing the player to choose between killing enemies easier and having cash to spend later quite engaging.  The ghosts of the metro continue to offer a creepy, pace-changing moments throughout the game, adding wonderfully atmosphere at much needed moments.  The game’s “morality” system is intact, offering moments both big and small that determine the outcome of the story. 

The highlight of these elements, however, has to be the game’s emphasis on exploration.  While the Metro series is definitely a linear one in design, many areas offer branching paths as well as nook and crannies to explore that could yield much-desired items and equipment for the player.  Finding Ranger and bandit stashes in the dead city at the risk of setting off deadly traps is great and exploring Spider-infested side areas that may hold enhanced weapons or military-grade ammunition definitely offers the player plenty of incentive to explore.  Heck, several moments in the game either encourage or discourage doing so by trying into the “morality” system.  I can think of no less than six major instances throughout the experience that I either didn’t investigate or did based on the implications of that decision.  This definitely adds to the replay value and makes a second or even third playthrough all the more enticing.

One final note I feel must be emphasized is is that this is, without a doubt, a mature title.  Though the game is a particularly violent one, the mature nature of the title comes more from the pornographic content featured in a particular portion of the game.  In one optional scene the player can pay a stripper five bullets for a topless lap dance and given the attention to detail put into both the animations and the graphical quality of the character model it is quite clear that this wasn't a spur of the moment thing.  This is the kind of scene that clearly caters to the male demographic and so I must warn even the most leniant parents that Metro Last Light is something you do not buy for your 10 year old.  Although, I have to wonder just how that mo-cap session worked and how long it lasted...

The Soul of the Metro
4A Games chose to create their own engine and Metro 2033’s first use of it was a very nice freshman effort.  Last Light features a refined graphics palate with a much better lighting system than before.  The game features a much stronger particle effects system which is a very nice touch.  The makeshift nature of almost everything you saw in 2033 is repeated to a very enjoyable degree, putting even more emphasis on just how desperate the world of the metro actually is.  Faces seem to be the only item left almost untouched save for a few specific character models.

Probably the best part of the visual design is the updated environments and the variety thereof.  Tunnels infested by spiders are incredibly creepy and many of the flooded sections of the metro feature some nicely done water.  Visits to the surface are the clear winner here, however, as the environments melting snow has yielded greener environments and swampland, making for a nice change of pace from the greys and browns seen in the metro.  There’s a lot to love here.

As much as the graphics system has been refined, the sound design has remained unchanged.  Though this may seem to be a mark against Last Light it is actually a strong compliment as the previous title was easily one of the best I’ve heard in years.  Everything from the wind flowing through the tunnels, to the scratching noises and growls of Spiders and Nosalises to even the weapons fire is sweet, sweet nectar for any audiophile out there.  Even the voicework is well done though, I implore you, consider playing entirely in Russian.  Believe me, a HUD-less, Russian-voiced playthrough is the way to go.

One final note I think the reader should be aware of is the PC version’s inclusion of several bonuses.  The final product comes with a free PDF copy of Metro 2033’s novel in case you find yourself wanting to learn more about author Dmitry Glukhovsky’s expanding universe.  In addition, the game features a rather nice benchmarking tool for those wanting to put their system to the test.  They are small items, sure, but they’re definitely nice additions.

The Last Light of Hope
Metro 2033 was a sleeper hit for THQ three years ago and the dedicated team at 4A Games certainly deserve to be praised for their hard work on the game.  With Last Light however we have an even more wonderful experience to take in.  While the story doesn’t deliver in some departments, the overall experience is rather fantastic.  If anything, the best description I can offer is that Last Light is a gameplay refinement on 2033 that offers a continued story in a universe ripe with potential.  It proves that a shooter doesn’t need to have multiplayer to survive and I’m very, very glad that a publisher like Deep Silver would be willing to rescue a title like Last Light from the debacle that was THQ’s downfall.

The transition year for two generations of consoles always yields a crop of very impressive titles and if you were forced to choose only one title to end a generation on, amongst greats like Bioshock Infinite and plentypotentiaries such as The Last of Us, you’d be a fool not to consider Metro Last Light.


Video Review: Bioshock Infinite

Every generation that has come along there have been those few memorable titles that, beyond being great experiences, really makes the player put down the controller and truly consider their actions and the implications of the story.  2007’s release of Bioshock by then 2K Boston and meant to be a spiritual successor to the beloved System Shock series, stands as one of those few.  Your journey to the decimated city of Rapture at the bottom of the Atlantic was a roller coaster ride of self-discovery whose plot twist is easily one of the most talked about moments in video games since the dawn of achievements.  2K Marin would go on to make a sequel to the adventure under the sea but the newly redubbed Irrational Games had, dare I say, loftier plans for the franchise.

You’ve heard us talk a LOT about Infinite on the site but it’s time to give the game a final review.  So here’s the question: does Bioshock Infinite rise to the occasion?  Here’s what I think.

Click to read the full written review


Another Ark, For Another Time
At the 1893 World’s Fair one of the many inventions and concepts shown off was the floating city of Columbia, a tribute to the new idea of American exceptionalism.  Built by Zachary Comstock, the United States government commissioned Columbia to travel throughout the world to demonstrate the rising power that America was becoming.  But then something happened: during a routine trip to China an anti-imperialist movement attacked, taking American hostages.  The event, known today as the Boxer Rebellion, saw Columbia fire upon the Chinese in retaliation, an act in defiance of Washington’s orders that resulted in the deaths of hundreds.  Columbia then seceded from the Union and disappeared into the heavens.

Nineteen years after the Boxer Rebellion, former Pinkerton agent and private detective Booker DeWitt, an experienced combat veteran of the Battle of Wounded Knee, is approached by a man who is willing to solve Booker’s gambling problems.  Booker’s task: infiltrate the city of Columbia, retrieve a girl named Elizabeth and bring her safely back to New York.  Our story begins on a stormy night at a lighthouse off the coast of Maine and from here, Booker is on his own.

The story of Bioshock Infinite, in many ways, is both a continuation and an evolution of the Bioshock formula put forth in the previous two games.  The evolution specifically comes in the form of the principle characters of Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth in comparison to yesteryear’s composition of Andrew Ryan, Brigid Tenanbaum and Frank Fontaine who saw very limited appearances, not to mention Jack who never spoke and who’s moral fortitude was determined by the rescue or harvesting of Little Sisters.  The continuation of the formula comes in the form of the city of Columbia and the way the background events occur but before we get to that, let’s begin by looking at our protagonists.

To start, let’s take a look at Booker.  Irrational Games, unlike what was done for the first two games, decided to give the main character a voice this time around.  A game played for the first person perspective rarely gives a voice to the main character save for in cutscenes wherein the camera pans to show the character you’re playing as and, for that, I’m grateful to the developer for trying this.  First person games don’t need to force the main character to be a silent protagonist and, in my opinion, there is much more room for narrative crafting if you allow the player character to interact vocally with the rest of the world.  We need to see more of this in games going forward.

As for Booker’s character specifically I have to say that he is a very interesting one.  Just by the way he speaks and the dreams he has throughout the game you immediately get the feeling of a downtrodden, tired man.  The choices he has made throughout his life have really worn him down and you can easily gleam that this last chance to clear his debts is also an opportunity to make up for the wrongs he’s done in his life.  Booker is clearly a very well done character and his ‘man on a mission’ mantra begins to change in a far more attention-drawing way once we are introduced to Elizabeth.

Elizabeth, without a doubt, is easily one of the best parts of Bioshock Infinite.  Though she has been locked away in a tower all her life, Elizabeth is anything but a damsel in distress.  She’s very intelligent, remarkably introspective and, beyond almost every other aspect, a wonderfully innocent person.  The first half hour of your time with Elizabeth is simply adorable as she gets to experience world outside of her cage for the first time, enjoying all the marvelous things life has to offer before being shown the cruelty of man and our natural violence as the police and Comstock’s agents attempt to recapture her.  Her innocence is simply wonderful and serves as a rather fantastic omega to Booker’s depressed, guilty alpha.  Elizabeth’s part in Infinite almost comes across as a coming-of-age tale as she is torn from the innocence of youth in her tower and must grow and adapt to the terrible truths that exist within Columbia.  She’s a wonderful character and easily one of the best female protagonists in years.

Though Columbia itself is a wonderful backdrop for the game the similarities between this city in the sky and the fallen underwater utopia make the case for the story being a continuation of Bioshock’s formula in comparison to the character evolution.  Whereas Rapture was a caricature of a society built on the progression of science and the abandonment of religious and moral values that held that progress back, Columbia is the philosophic (not to mention physical) polar opposite of Andrew Ryan’s dream: a society built on religion that seeks to stem the growth of science and social progression.  Rapture’s downfall came at the hands of a working-class uprising and so too does Columbia’s, albeit that the first game’s revolution occurs well before the player ever gets to the lighthouse and Columbia’s civil war occurs during Booker’s visit.  The themes are similar but there’s not enough difference between the two to say that Infinite is truly that different from Bioshock.

Along with the themes comes the way that Irrational chose to tell the story of Infinite.  The game’s twist unfortunately comes during the later third of the game so pacing can be a bit of an issue.  Much of the backstory is told through Voxophones, audio diaries that are found in exactly the same manner that was seen in Bioshock 1 and 2 so any hope for discovering vital story elements through unrequired NPC interaction and environmental exploration remains unrealized.  It’s clear to me at least that Irrational wanted to play things safe with Infinite in these regards and while it would be nice to gleam more from this rather strange and intriguing world through other means, sticking to what works doesn’t harm the story as a whole.

Beyond just the comparisons of running themes and storytelling methods I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about some of the unique story elements that Infinite has a lot to offer.  Using the backdrop of the early 20th century, a short time before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand drew Europe into war, Irrational Games gave us a time period in Americana that is rather fantastical to explore.  Extreme nationalism is rampant throughout the flying city and feelings of racial purity and racism are commonplace throughout the higher classes.  Religion comes in the form of the worship of Comstock as a prophet who leads Colombia to a brighter tomorrow and whose saints come of the form of America’s found fathers such as Washington and Jefferson.  The religion and racism tie together in many ways.  For example, a group known as the Fraternal Order of the Crow dedicates themselves to the memory of Comstock’s deceased wife and worship John Wilkes Booth for his assassination of Abraham Lincoln behind black cowls very much like those worn by the Ku Klux Klan.  All of this is a little bit jarring when you find yourself stepping up to a public stoning of an interracial couple in the middle of a fair but it’s done so in such a way that you find yourself almost in awe of what’s going on as it is such a contrast to today’s values and ethics.  It’s incredibly wrong to watch but, in the end, you get to shoot all these racist bastards in the face so, hey, it all works out.

Though I won’t go into any specific spoilers for the game I will say that Irrational put together a rather brilliant yarn.  The ending alone makes up for many of the game’s story-related flaws as it leaves you remarkably satisfied and without the need for sequel-baiting.  It stands to wonder just what Irrational has planned for the games downloadable content coming later this year, especially given just how we didn’t get to see as well as the content that was lost in transition between the early demonstrations and the final product.  But for now, let’s just right into the gameplay.

Leading the Lamb Astray
Like the two Bioshocks before it, Infinite plays as a traditional first person shooter in many respects.  As with the previous titles you will find yourself killing enemies, looting bodies and your surrounds and upgrading your weapons as you traverse the streets of Columbia.  For the most part, the experience is a slightly more fast-paced version of what we all know and love but with this new iteration comes a few changes as well as additions to this tried-and-true formula.

First up: the player’s weapon selection.  As before, you will find a variety of firearms such as pistols, shotguns, machine guns and heavy explosives to deal damage to your foes.  What you will take note of however is the game’s limitation of your inventory to two weapons at any given time.  This encourages more scrounging in the environment and should, theoretically, force the player to experience all the weapons to be found in the game.  The way the game is structured with ammo and weapon placement, however, never stresses the player to switch out your firearms, allowing you to almost always maintain the same pair of weaponry throughout Infinite unless playing on the game’s infamous 1999 mode.  There are no alternate ammunition types to be found and weapon upgrades cost money now, allowing you to max out any weapon you want without, again, forcing the player to specialize.

Much like the plasmids of yore, Bioshock Infinite contains various powers the player can accumulate called vigors, powers that are paced throughout the game and are powered by salts.  Though they work almost the same way as before, most will come with a secondary fire option automatically such as the ability to lay traps out for enemies to trip over.  The variety of vigors to find are paced throughout the game but there are only eight to collect and despite the ability to chain different vigors together for powerful combos, the variety is a bit disappointing.  The vigors also don’t seem to be nearly as offensive as they were previously as they all seem designed to stun enemies with the explicit goal of giving you time to take them out with your weapons.  At no point in the game did I feel able to play from beginning to end focusing entirely on vigors and the game seems to make no effort to allow this to happen.  If anything could be said of vigors it’s this: they are a secondary tool, not a primary weapon, nothing more.

Much like the vigors, tonics have been replaced with interchangeable gear and it is this part of the gameplay that is the least executed.  Players will be able to find gear throughout Columbia and can wear four of them at any time so long as the gear you wish to wield fits into a slot for your hat, shirt, pants and shoes.  One of the first problems with the gear is that what you find is predetermined for each slot you can wear, meaning that you are unable to make a proper build to your exact specifications.  Another issue pertains to the variety of gear to be found.  While there is a decent assortment to be found, most of the gear is very specific as to its capabilities and only a select handful feel multifunctional.  More often than not you’ll find yourself disappointed with what you find and simply taking it, never to equip it.  In short, gear is probably the most underdeveloped portion of Infinite and I can only hope that, with the game’s upcoming DLC, that we’ll see a fix for this.

While the vigors and gear disappoint, Elizabeth once again makes up the difference and turns things around.  Though one would suspect that Bioshock Infinite is just one big escort mission (and to be fair that is an apt description), Irrational has made Booker and Elizabeth’s journey one that’s more of a mission for her than you.  Elizabeth is never subjected to combat and never gets in his way.  When outside of combat she will search through the environment and point out items of interest such as lockpicks.  It is in combat that you really see her come into her own as she actively aids Booker by handing him health, ammunition and salts should you be getting low on any of them.  Though she never actually retrieves them in the environment as it is probably hidden behind some kind of cooldown timer, Elizabeth’s aid in combat dramatically changes the pacing of a fight sometimes and since I never have to really worry about her I can easily focus on what the enemy is throwing my way.

Elizabeth doesn’t just aid you with items however: her powers come into play too.  Throughout the game you will notice spots in the world called tears which highlight items found in another reality.  Elizabeth has the unique ability to open tears and bring outside things into our world.  Everything from a piece of cover to automated weaponry can be brought into the world and, if done right, can shift a fight in your favor very quickly.  Though the depth of her powers in combat is a little disappointing in comparison to what we got to see at the game’s announcement and in 2010, Elizabeth does all the right things to make this escort mission certainly not feel like one.

Another great highlight of the gameplay comes in the form of the skylines.  This method of cargo transportation between the various sections of Columbia make for a rather exhilarating way to change up the pace of combat as you can zoom in, out and around enemies where you see fit.  Skylines can also be used as an attack as you can leap off and strike enemies, sending most normal ones flying and potentially off of Columbia entirely.  They add a rather wonderful amount of verticality to the combat though I’m sad to report that they feel quite underutilized, nowhere near the amount of usefulness seen in the demonstrations in 2010 and 2011.

Enemy variety is a lot like what it was in the first two Bioshocks.  You have your standard melee and ranged enemies but there is no real passive enemy likes the Big Daddy was.  The Daddy has been replaced with enemies called Heavy Hitters, a selection of large minibosses that shake up many of the standard fights seen in Infinite.  The use of these enemies in combat seem unbalanced however as some, like the Mechanized Patriot, appear far more often than you would suspect whereas the Boys of Silence appear only for a brief section of the game.  Use of these enemies could work far better if their distribution had been shifted around but, as they are, Heavy Hitters offer a nice shift in challenge to what would otherwise be just another firefight.

One final note that I feel must be mentioned is the quality of the AI.  Now, in the case of Elizabeth you do see a strong quotient of intelligence behind her design.  She will never get in your way, she will almost always follow you wherever you go and the player will never have to worry about encountering path issues.  Heck, I think that Elizabeth’s ability to move at the exact same pace as the player is ones of the most wonderful parts of the AI as, all too often, games feature NPCs that run at their own pace without consideration of the player’s movement.  What works for Elizabeth sadly doesn’t seem to translate to the enemy AI at times unfortunately.  Enemies rarely make use of the skylines in order to attack you (save for those focused on melee weaponry) and they seem specifically programmed to stay within specific combat arenas.  This means that, if you retreat into a previous room or building you’ll notice some situations in which they don’t follow you at all, instead staying put and making for easy cannon fodder.

The Coming of the False Shepard
The average first person shooter these past several years have been a droll slab of browns, greys and blacks and only recently have we seen this winter of discoloration finally begin to thaw.  Bioshock Infinite really marks this new spring for color palates by presenting what is easily one of the best swathes seen in years.  Textures are as bright and vibrant as one could want and the opening hour of the game really shows off a fantastic looking world.  It should be noted however that the game looks damn near stunning on the PC and that that particular platform is the best way to experience the game.  If you are stuck with a console however you needn’t fear as both the 360 and PS3 versions are quite good looking.

The sound design for Infinite is equally as attractive as the visual design.  Courtnee Draper does a wonderful job as Elizabeth and Troy Baker’s portrayal of Booker is just as good, making for a rather brilliant pair.  Weapons sound powerful, ambient noise aids rather well in giving the world character and the music is enthralling and engaging.  There isn’t a single item in the game’s audio design that hurts the ears and everything from the cries of the Songbird to the ambient chantings of Comstock followers never gets old.

Presentation-wise, this game’s design is fantastic is clearly comes from minds that know how to imagine a world unlike so many others.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken
Bioshock Infinite is a rather fantastic game.  Irrational Games had a lot to live up to when designing the successor to their 2007 masterpiece and I believe it’s fair to say that they more than succeeded.  While some minor gameplay issues hamper things a bit and the story’s pacing could be a bit more uniform, these items are but a small scuff on a rather masterful work.  While Infinite isn’t exactly a heavenly experience to be had, it certainly soars higher than so many that have come before it and no doubt will still be well out of reach of quite a few games to come.


Review: Dead Space 3

For all the work we put into talking, writing and playing video games, most of us are powerless when we are faced with change, especially when it comes to changes for the perceived worse.  This generation has seen an almost dramatic shift toward homogenization than any other before it and the results have been a mixed bag of shining examples of quality work amongst rotten-to-the-core titles.  For all the shooters, RPGs and strategy titles that have experienced this over the past seven years no genre has been more noticeably subject to change than that of the horror game.  Long running series of scares like Resident Evil have jumped the shark, ruining themselves thanks to ideas of action-oriented gameplay and the belief that the fanbase will buy their products so long as the name is on the box.  The fitting replacements for such beloved series have mostly been indie titles as publishers seem to be afraid to put a strong budget behind a scary experience.

Dead Space has the distinction of being an exception to that rule.  For two games now, Visceral Games has presented us a rather startlingly claustrophobic story of advanced technology amongst fanatical religion and a threat to all life that binds those two together.  With this new release comes many changes to the Dead Space formula, introducing elements like cooperative play and survival-specific gameplay alterations.  With so many changes that are similar to those made to the latest (and abysmal) Resident Evil game, does Dead Space 3 still have what it takes to do its series proud?

Click to read the full review

The Marker Escalation
Issac Clarke was once the everyman, an engineer who boarded the USG Ishimura hoping to see his girlfriend and instead ended up the preeminent Necromorph expert, having survived two major outbreaks and lived to tell the tale.  The character has grown from an everyman into that of a distinct, reluctant hero and it is a status that Clarke has tried to hide away from in the three years since the Necromorph outbreak on Titan Station in 2511.  Wallowing away in a hovel of an apartment complex on the lunar colony on Earth’s moon, Issac is suddenly attacked and detained by members of EarthGov, the same force that held him captive and experimented on him to create the Black Marker on Titan Station.  Clarke agrees to help them however as the team leader, Norton, reveals that Ellie Langford, the woman who escaped Titan Station with him, has sent for his rescue in the hope that he can aid in a mission to stop the Marker threat.  Norton also divulges that a radical wing of Unitologists, the religion founded to worship the Markers, has gone rouge, attacking EarthGov and wiping out most of their military.

Issac and the group are barely able to escape the lunar colony after the Unitologists destroy the containment shell of a Marker test site hidden within the city, unleashing the Necromorph plague upon the population.  Onboard the USM Eudora, Clarke finds out just why he was rescued: Ellie and her team have uncovered what they believe to be the source of the Marker signal and the origin of the Necromorph infestation on Tau Volantis, a frozen planet on the outskirts of the known galaxy.  With no other choice, Clarke agrees to face the threat that has haunted him for nearly six years once more.

After two large and immensely enjoyable stories in this universe, Dead Space 3’s story is one that’s hard to place in any sort of ranking system.  While the Necromorph threat is still as large and omnipresent as it has been since the beginning of the series, it feels as though this third entries’ story is meant to be a strong escalation of circumstances and potential consequences.  There’s a lot riding on Issac in this one in comparison to the first two stories and, for that, the story makes this tale to the end of the universe an exciting one to explore.  There are a few things holding the experience back from taking the top spot in terms of narrative though.

For one, pacing is an issue.  In comparison to the two previous games, Dead Space 3 is a decidedly sped up affair.  Much of the game does not let you take a moment to catch your breath and steady yourself for the next task.  You’ll notice a significant uptick in Necromorph encounters, missions seem to be over far sooner than one would suspect and there is significantly more dialog to be found throughout the game despite the strong reduction in RIG-projected video conversations.  All of these add up to a more action-oriented experience than the previous titles which, normally, is a detriment to horror-based series like this one.  This doesn’t seem to be the case this time around though as many of these narrative changes are balanced out by several gameplay elements but more on that in a moment.

The action-oriented shift in gameplay also pertains to the story and, unfortunately, in some ways it is to the game’s detriment.  Taking a look at the big moments of the game you will notice that not only are unique set pieces few and far between but that even these big moments don’t really wow any experienced Dead Space veteran.  The game checks off most of the tropes the previous games have done in the past without providing us with as many epic scenes to experience.  By comparison, Dead Space 2 offers plenty of unique moments such as the Church of Unitology, the school with the Necromorph chidren and even the return to the Ishimura.  When looking at Dead Space 3, save for the game’s opening and the final areas of the game (which I will not go into for fear of significant spoilers) there just is not enough to really get the blood pumping and the eyes dilating anymore.

One point that must be mentioned to the game’s benefit is the character development throughout Dead Space 3.  More so than the previous two games combined, this third game introduces us to a wide range of emotions and points of view that round out a more humanized take on the series.  From the lost love story between Issac and Ellie to the fanatical preachings of Jacob Danik and his Inner Circle Unitologists, the characters seem to be much more interesting this time around.  The characters have a definite appreciation for both the stakes of their actions as well as the risks they are putting themselves through.  More so than the previous games, I found myself really feeling for Issac and his situation thanks to his reluctant call-to-arms story, making me appreciate him more.

If Visceral and Electronic Arts didn’t make it clear outside of the game that they intend to continue the series on beyond Dead Space 3 it would be easy to believe this is the end of the series thanks to its rather emotionally dark yet hopeful ending.  The game’s singleplayer story alone can reach lengths beyond twenty hours on a first playthrough and several more hours can be tacked on to that number separately thanks to the game’s cooperative mode.  In short, Dead Space 3 offers a significantly longer story to explore with a fine cast of characters and while the story that’s told is indeed an enjoyable one, its pacing and development leaves something to be desired.

The Precipice at Man’s End, Discovered Long Before
Dead Space has always been a horror story a survivor amidst chaos and carnage who is tasked (and aided) from afar with only his wits, tools and weapons allowing him to survive beyond their first encounter with the enemy.  In many ways, Dead Space 3 is still that formula as Issac is repeatedly tasked with less than desirable mission objectives that force him to utilize what little resources he has to complete the assignment.  Visceral has seen fit to expand on this structure in many ways and while some are a credit to the natural evolution of the series as a whole, the overall nature of these changes are a stark shift in an unwanted direction.

Dead Space’s roots are found specifically in the survival horror genre and there are three primary aspects that make a survival horror game what it is: an initially underpowered protagonist, item management and exploration.  The first two aspects have undergone a dramatic change, presenting a gameplay mechanic switch-up on par with the removal of many of the RPG elements that occurred in the transition between Mass Effect 1 and 2.  This change occurs due to two interlinked additions to the game: a new crafting system and the addition of universal ammo.

The crafting system by itself is a fairly robust one.  Utilizing materials gathered in the field (there is no in-game currency this time around), players have the ability to create and customize a strong number of different weapons for all types of scenarios, anything from a standard plasma cutter to the immensely powerful contact beam.  These, in turn, can be combined to form dual-action weapons that make them immensely versatile.  This reviewer concocted a contact beam with an alternate fire shotgun that shoots javelin spikes, allowing me to one-shot harder enemies while significantly hurt groups should I be strongly outnumbered.  The game now limits players to two weapons now and while this doesn’t harm a players’ ability to craft and experiment to their hearts content with new weapons and configurations it can be a bit difficult to accept when certain sections of the game require the use of a particular weapon type.

Due to the nature of the weapon crafting system though Visceral has been forced to utilize a universal ammo system and it is something that really detracts from the experience in my opinion.  Most survival horror games put a strong focus on ammunition management but given the weapon crafting the player would be otherwise forced to utilize up to three different ammunition types at once, something that isn’t exactly feasible given your limited carrying capacity.  It’s a necessary evil and one I don’t completely agree with.  Had there been the ability to play through the game with classic Dead Space rules as far as item and weapon management I’d have been happier with the final product but, as of this review’s posting, the option does not exist.

The crafting system also applies to your character’s tools and RIG, something that I also find fault in.  While the player still has the ability to upgrade their character’s health, kinesis and stasis abilities, the player’s armor rating now applies to the rig instead of the suit the player can wear.  The player can no longer find or build suits as the game progresses and instead grants the player a new suit at regular intervals throughout the experience.  This completely detracts from the systems built into Dead Space 1 and 2 as it gives the player absolutely no incentive to experiment and try out new suits, also removing one of the catalytic elements for which players would want to do another playthrough of the game.  It’s a problem and one that Visceral should definitely consider reverting for future games in the series.

Tying into the crafting system as well is the added “feature” of micro-transactions to purchase in-game content.  Now, Dead Space has never been one to shy away from downloadable content but it seems that EA is content to make sure they can get every last dollar out of you that they can should you fail to have the patience to earn the content yourself.  These mini purchases will grant you more resources and better weapon mods for certain prices but in reality it is entirely unnecessary.  I cannot stress this enough: you can unlock everything in Dead Space 3 without purchasing it by simply playing it.  The system is there for people who are not patient and it’s a system that has present in many high profile EA titles since Battlefield 3 so there’s no need to get in a tizzy about it.

The final element of a survival horror game, the exploration, is something that, unlike the first two elements, has been greatly expanded upon in Dead Space 3.  In addition to far larger environments to venture into Visceral has also included new optional side missions.  While these seem to have no bearing on the overall narrative of the game they do expand on the background of the events preceding it.  Unfortunately many of the optional missions utilize recycled environments and the rewards for completing them are only meant to augment your weapons and RIG.  It would have been a far more enticing experience had these optional missions in fact held storyline consequences for Issac and crew, possibly allowing for a multiple ending scenario for the game, but this is something that, for now, is not in the final product.

Human combatants in Dead Space 3 is an item many have groaned audibly about ever since the game’s debut at E3 2012 but this is something I can safely say is not nearly as big a problem as one would think.  Encounters with human enemies occur less often than one would think, making them a far smaller threat than one would believe.  If anything, they demonstrate the power that lies within the Necromorph threat as the humans are fairly weak in comparison.  It is also a bit of a narrative necessity as Issac and crew are hunted by Danik and his Unitologist brethren and given the way they are handled throughout the experience, it’s not something that harms the game at all.

One aspect of the game that pushes the line for defining a game as a survival horror experience is Dead Space 3’s much talked about cooperative mode.  Despite all indications to the contrary, the co-op in Visceral’s newest game is decidedly a very solid experience.  Playing as John Carver alters the story only slightly, allowing for a less lonely experience and some interesting banter allowing you to see Dead Space from a new perspective.  Carver also receives exclusive cooperative missions throughout the game that harken back to Issac’s previous hallucinogenic encounters with Nicole, an antagonist I very much miss as she does not appear in Dead Space 3 since Issac came to terms with her death at the end of the previous game.  The player taking the role of Carver will experience similar hallucinations, something that appears on their screen but not on the screen of the person playing as Issac.  This can lead to some rather confusing moments for both players as one will see a normal environment while the other sees and hears one that’s significantly altered.  It’s definitely fun to play through and is a very strong incentive for playing through the game a second time.

On a final note, one must mention Dead Space 3’s difficulty, or rather the lack thereof.  Despite having played through the game on hard the first time through, this reviewer has come to find that the game is a decidedly easy affair for series veterans.  The player is given a significant amount of ammo and health items can be found almost everywhere.  In fact, upon completion of the game my safe of items was filled to the brim with healing items, stasis packs and ammo.  Although the game’s litany of new game plus variants address this it simply instills a level of ease that hasn’t been inherent since the series’ debut.  Hopefully this will be addressed in future iterations of the franchise.

Make Us Whole, Turn It Off
Despite the next generation being a hop, skip and a jump away from arriving on our doorsteps, Dead Space 3 is a visually stunning affair to be had.  Many of the environments in the game are simply gorgeous and will make you sit back for a moment to take in the lighting and set pieces presented to you.  In particular are the space environments early on in the game in which you have the ability to wander about the wreckage of the flotilla unabated, watching as pieces of ships float amongst a star-lit backdrop.  Character animations are well done and emotions are well represented amongst the cast, complementing the game’s already well done voice casting.

The audio presentations in Dead Space games have always been rather wonderful and this new entry is no exception.  Players will find a wonderful assortment of environments to listen to as they go throughout Tau Volantis and the sound design is well representative of the derelict ice planet.  Necromorph howls and growls are haunting and the clash of rusted metal is both loud and oppressive, more than giving the hint that you are not only in a place long since abandoned by humanity but also one that is certainly not welcoming.  Just like the previous entries, Dead Space 3’s audio design is supremely well done and should not be missed by anyone who has a strong surround sound setup.

Convergence Is At Hand
Dead Space 3 had a lot going against it ever since it was announced.  Skeptics were quick to call out elements like the co-op feature as signs that the series had finally gone mainstream, attempting to draw in as many players as possible at the cost of what has made the series so great to begin with.  Thankfully, despite these voices saying otherwise, Dead Space 3 is a rather good game.  Though there are several questionable design choices that should be reconsidered for the series going forward, what Visceral has brought to the table is both a very strong Dead Space title as well as a rather intense and occasionally scary game.  It is definitely not something to be passed over for series fans and though I would point newcomers to the previous games in order to gain an appreciation for the story and universe, it is equally as welcoming.

Issac Clarke’s story may be over with this third title but the Dead Space universe still holds more than enough secrets and mysteries to explore and learn for at least a fourth title.  With a few lessons learned from this game I can’t help but be excited for where the series takes us next.


GOTY 2012 Stuff And What I've Been Up To

So, as you've probably seen, I've been kinda absent since October.  The reason for this is what you are seeing above: I took on a large project to work on top 10 videos for 4Player.  Including mine, this accounted for 9 individual videos (originally 10 but one person dropped out).  This might not seem like a big deal but let me break it down for you.

  • 40 different games recorded at roughly 1 hour of footage per game
  • Voiceovers for each one with 30 seconds to 2 minutes for each game
  • 4-5 hours minimum per video of editing together

It was definitely a stuggle to put all of these together in addition to editing and publishing the video versions of the podcast and Cocktail Time.  You can view the rest of the top 10 videos here in case you are interested.  I write better than I speak as many of you know so the video above was indeed scripted.  4k words in case you were curious.

Anyway, the new year has begun and I do plan on getting some writing done.  I just hope that a major project like what I've had to deal with for the past 2.5 months won't get in my way for a while.