BioShock Infinite: Sky High Delight Or Underwater Menace? SPOILER-FREE

BioShock Infinite

Columbia: There’s a better home a-waiting.

I don’t usually review video games for a variety of reasons, the main one being that I never have the time these days to really plough through a game straight after release and then cobble together something that is both timely and reflective of the full experience.

There is, however, one exception to this rule. Back in 2007, 2K Games released an intriguing little shooter called BioShock. A spiritual successor to the System Shock games, the sinister underwater setting and core production values instantly installed the game as one of my all-time favourites, and I would go to bed at night with the Circus of Values chimes running over and over in my head. Finally a game had harnessed modern console power to produce a stunningly immersive experience and a storyline in which you actually gave two hoots about the main characters.

Six years on and after the not-quite-as-good BioShock 2, we finally get the game we’ve been waiting for; BioShock Infinite. Early trailers and screens had given away the theme, with 2K taking the setting from fathoms below the Earth to miles above it in the floating city of Columbia, its gleaming spires hiding something sinister within.

The story is pretty simple in theory, even going so far as to mirror the earliest of Donkey Kong games; rescue the girl. But that is where the simplicities end. As lead protagonist Booker DeWitt, you are charged with not only finding the girl in question, Elizabeth, but also uncovering exactly what debts you will be repaying by doing so, and exploring the majestic flying city as you do.

To cover off the full plot would take another 2000 words, and as the game really needs to be experienced I’m not going to go into too much detail here. It doesn’t give too much away to say that Columbia is governed by Father Zachary Comstock, leader of a group called the Founders who strive to keep Columbia orderly against the rising discontent of revolutionaries the Vox Populi. A self-proclaimed ‘Prophet’, Comstock spends his time warning his people against the coming of the False Shepherd who is said to be responsible for bringing about Columbia’s downfall.

The city is a brilliant dystopia, rivalling Rapture as a morally ambiguous haven for saints and sinners. Throughout the game, you’ll come across various other characters from businessmen and scientists to shopkeepers and slaves who you can choose to treat either with respect or disdain, depending on your reading of the game’s society and of your character’s motivation.

Weaponry comes in the form of the usual line-up of pistols, shotguns, machine guns, sniper rifles and RPGs, all of which can be upgraded to the hilt, whilst kit parcels hidden amongst Columbia’s buildings give you special abilities which can be swapped in and out depending on the enemy you’re fighting at the time.

Of course, you can’t have a BioShock game without some supernatural special powers and just as the original had plasmids, here we have vigors which provide you with magical, mystical abilities. Powered by salts, the vigors feature amongst their number the ability to unleash a quite literal murder of ravens upon your foes, the power to shoot Sith-like crackles of electricity at all and sundry, or a talent for possessing machines and humans to do your bidding. All of the vigors have a secondary ability too in the form of traps which can be laid in the path of on-rushing foes, adding a nice tactical element to proceedings.

The combination of weaponry (right trigger) and vigors (left) works exceptionally well, and you’ll quickly be raining bullets down on enemies before finishing them off with an electrical burst or bull in a china shop charge.

The other part of your arsenal is the Sky-Hook. Created for attaching yourself to the monorail system that coils around Columbia, the wrist-based hook can not only be used for speeding around the city, but also as a melee weapon with which to batter your opponents.

An integral part of the game is Elizabeth herself and again it isn’t really a spoiler to say that you will travel with her for some of your journey. Elizabeth serves a few purposes and most importantly, she looks after herself. The game would have been severely hampered if 2K had focused on you having to constantly watch her back, so it’s pleasing to see the young lady intelligently taking cover and even going so far as to search the surroundings, lobbing you salts, ammo or money when required. She can also pick locks and open tears in space and time, allowing you to ask her to bring through assistance such as turrets, drones or cover during some of the trickier battles.

Graphically, there is little that surpasses this game on modern consoles. The environments are varied enough without ever being jarring and seeing the city both sparkling in sunlight and shrouded in darkness are equally satisfying. Enemies are insanely designed enough for you to know that you’re in a BioShock game and despite Infinite being set a fair few years before the first two in the franchise, similar stylistic themes prevail.

A special mention should also go to the soundtrack. Not only are the voice actors involved all on top form (including veteran Troy Baker as Booker) the music throughout is everything from haunting to jolly to maniacal, topped off by a brilliant cover of Tears For Fears ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’.

So, is this game better than the first Bioshock? Possibly. It does look even better than its forebear, whilst the mechanics have been tweaked just enough so that it is familiar but also as tight as a gnat’s chuff.

There are a couple of minor quibbles, however. Medium difficulty generally gives you plenty of opportunity and cash to restock with ammo, but a random section suddenly provided me with zero ammunition for an extended length of time. Fortunately, this only served to make me more resourceful with my vigors and Sky-Hook. There are also a couple of ‘stuck in the scenery’ moments when the area you’re in becomes particularly dark (warning kids – don’t knock your brightness right down at the start) and the game also glitched once, refusing to let me past without a reboot, but presumably that will get fixed with a patch.

All in all, BioShock Infinite is a stunning game. As soon as I completed it I had to sit in awe, watching the credits and taking some deep breaths, trying to digest all that had been presented to me over a pretty mammoth 15+ hour journey through Columbia and beyond. 2K Games have delivered an astonishing, thinking person’s shooter that sucks you so far into its world, you’ll wonder if you or Booker will ever escape.

Xbox 360 Vs PlayStation 3 – Part II

Well, it’s long overdue and by not-at-all popular demand, I thought I would update my views on the console wars circa 2009.

You may remember that nearly two years ago, I posted that Microsoft hit the ground running with some great exclusives, a great online facility and a real drive to corner the hardcore gamer market with their Xbox 360. On the flip side, Sony seemed to be too pre-occupied with the HD wars, weren’t really focused on a particular demographic, and the price point of PS3 was putting people off in droves.

So what’s new? The Wii seems to have had its five minutes of fame and been slightly exposed for the underpowered gimmick that it is. Conversely, both Microsoft and Sony have recently unveiled motion senor-based controlling mechanisms. There are far fewer console exclusives out there these days, even Metal Gear Solid has gone multi-format. HD-DVD is dead and gone. And Gran Turismo 5 STILL isn’t out.

Personally I continue to buy games across both console formats, but mainly on 360 for the still-better-than-Sony’s controller, especially for First Person Shooters, the online service they offer via Xbox Live, and the strangely competitive nature of the achievements system.

But, my patience with Microsoft has been stretched to breaking point at times. I, like many others got the dreaded Red Ring Of Death on my 360, originally after only having had it for about 18 months. To be fair though, MS managed to pick it up, repair it and admit that the faults were more widespread than first thought, having their hand forced into offering everyone an extended warranty on their console “just in case.” It wasn’t the first time I had to send a console off to get fixed either, my old PS2 once gave up the ghost and I had to send it off to Sony for repair, which ended up costing about £60 (from memory). Not the best customer experience when it was me that was the one out of pocket.

Unfortunately, despite updated chip-sets and increased storage capacity, the newer 360s on the market still sound like aircraft taking off, making them unusable for movie watching. The ability to install games to the hard drive quietens things down a bit, but this relies on you having available disk space, and actually wanting to wait for the thing to install rather than just plugging in and playing away. It was never a possibility on my Xbox 360 Premium edition as the 20GB harddrive soon got full with game saves and downloadable extra content for various games. So much so that I couldn’t even download demos anymore, so I was kind of relieved when I got my second Red Ring (!) and found myself with a good reason to upgrade to the black Xbox 360 Elite, complete with 120GB harddrive. This beast is a bit quieter than its predecessor, but compared to the PS3 it’s still a roaring lion next to a little squeaky mouse. Having said that, it is easy to set up, the new £199 price point is more than agreeable, and the free data transfer kit made getting all my old stuff off the Premium a doddle.

Microsoft’s relatively recent NXE (New Xbox Experience) has also made the menu system even simpler to use, although the use of avatars which the player can dress up and buy additional clothes/jewellery etc for seemed shoe-horned in for the younger market. Nevertheless, it’s mildly amusing playing around with the look of these little on-screen personas and they are being used in a more mainstream way now in games such as Guitar Hero 5 where your avatar will appear on stage as you play.

And what have Sony been up to? Well, they initially chucked a slew of differently memory-ed consoles at the consumer (sneakily removing PS2 backwards compatability without telling anyone at the same time). They then managed to release PlayStation Home for free, tart up their menu system and online store and introduce their trophies (their version of Microsoft’s achievements). Then, recently, they released the PS3 Slim, shaving some size off their behemoth of a machine.

The larger disk space consoles didn’t really do much to increase sales for Sony, but gradually, as the ridiculous £425 launch price came down, and rumble-enhanced controllers began to be included as standard, a few gamers started to take a punt. Helped hugely by Blu-ray winning the war over HD-DVD, tech-savvy consumers then saw the opportunity to pick up a relatively inexpensive media hub in the shape of a PS3 and sales grew.

Trophies seem to have made it easier for developers to use the same reward systems on both 360 and PS3 versions of all new releases, giving gamers something to compete over which in turn encourages people to replay games.

What continues to be an oddity though is the PlayStation Home game/facility/whatever the hell it is. Again, it features an avatar for you to dress up and you can trek around various zones which only seem to serve the purpose of advertising recent or upcoming games. There are a few very simple free games in there that you can have a crack at, but why buy a top of the range console and proceed to play oddities that you’d usually only consider if you had five minutes to kill and fancied an uninvolving flash-based game? It also seems that whenever you are bored enough to go and peek into Home, it forces you to download and install new areas or updates so frequently that you don’t end up spending much time actually DOING anything. And why is it that downloads from both Home and the PlayStation Store itself still take so long compared to the speed of Xbox Live content?

The base PS3 XMB (Cross Media Bar) menu system has benefitted from numerous updates however. There’s VidZone for those who fancy catching up on recent music videos. Even BBC iPlayer is there in all its glory. The Internet browser isn’t great but it’s functional. 360 has yet to even have one, the nearest they’ve come being the forthcoming Facebook and Twitter functionality. And let’s not forget that the PS3 online service is still free so gamers are more likely to accept that it isn’t as advanced yet as the 360’s flashy £40 a year interface.

In spite of its faults, the PS3 also remains more reliable, quieter, and the controller is still slightly more familiar for sports games. Having the weight of Sony behind it, who have been in the game far longer than Microsoft also helps, and the lure of Gran Turismo, Uncharted, Ratchet & Clank, InFamous, Resistance and Motorstorm exclusivity means that realistically I’m happy to still have both consoles nestled under my TV. Although I must say that I’m more than happy to have an older PS3 that looks far sleeker with touch-sensitive buttons and a glossy finish rather than the recent matt-look slim PS3, but presumably Sony had to cut costs somewhere in order to sell it at the new £250 price so making it LOOK cheaper must have seemed to be the easiest option.

And what of other videogamers and their behaviours? Of the 14 people (all of whom I still know personally) on my Xbox Live friends list, pretty much all of them have had to return their machines to Microsoft for repair at least once. Two of them don’t even have Xboxes anymore, the reason for one – they bought a PS3 instead. Of the other 12, not all of them play all that often at all, and when they do return to their machines, they may well find that their £40 a year Live subscription has expired anyway.

Funnily enough, my PS3 friends list has grown. Again, these are all people I know, not 13 year olds from New Jersey, but I now have a collection of people, some of whom, like me have both Xbox 360 and PS3. Some are converts to the PS3 phenomenon, others are old PS2 fans who have been waiting for the dust and the prices to settle before jumping into the next gen console wars.

One thing’s for sure – both Sony and Microsoft seem happy to co-exist for now, testing out bits and pieces of functionality, software, hardware and add-ons before even thinking about their next gambit. For once, it looks like the big boys are taking a considered approach to new console development, rather than continually rushing out new hardware before we truly need it, and that can only be good news for us consumers.

Xbox 360 Vs PlayStation 3

It is nearly a year since PlayStation 3 hit the UK and so I felt it was about the right time to sum up my feelings on the next-gen console wars.

 

I love a good console launch, lots of excitement, people importing foreign machines for silly amounts of money, simply because they have to have the latest kit before anyone else. Then there is the pre-ordering, the ebaying and the random stories about Yanks whooping at big midnight launch parties. What’s not to like?

 

During the PS2/Xbox days I was very much in the Sony camp – they had a better controller, a quieter, sleeker machine, far more games and some really good exclusives such as Tomb Raider, Pro Evolution Soccer & Grand Theft Auto (for a time), Gran Turismo, Ratchet & Clank, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, God of War, WWE Smackdown, Virtua Fighter  (I won’t include Metal Gear Solid as I’m not a huge fan of sneaking around and watching cut scenes for hours). Hell, I even liked Killzone.

 

Microsoft had tried going for grunt and raw processing power but in trying to steal into what was the PC-only territory of online First Person Shooters, they ignored the key PS2 younger audience and priced themselves out of the market. The depth and classy infrastructure of the first two Halo games (especially online) was very tempting but the original Xbox had little else to offer.

 

On the flip side, the only thing for Sony to improve after the success of PS2 was their online gaming service. But they got complacent. Bunging a Blu-ray player into PlayStation 3 is all well and good for those who have already upgraded their TVs, but for many others it wasn’t enough. In a reversal of fortunes, Microsoft focused on the fun and a community spirit with 360 whilst Sony meandered into multimedia hub territory.

 

I didn’t actually get a 360 on release day. I wasn’t intending to get one straight away anyway as I felt the PlayStation 2 still had plenty left to offer. I did pick up a core 360 system from johnlewis.com at 9am on launch day back in 2005 but I ebayed it to raise some funds.

 

After doing so, however, and having seen some of the early 360 games in action on HD televisions in Game, I decided to get a 360 for myself. Eventually, after lots of exciting chats with store employees over stock availability, I managed to snaffle one from argos.co.uk.

 

Upon firing it up and playing a bit of Call of Duty 2, Quake 4 and Perfect Dark Zero I was hooked. It didn’t matter that Microsoft were playing safe with sequels, these were all top drawer sequels and only scratched the surface of what the 360 could do.

 

Sony missed a trick again by delaying the European launch of PS3 until March 2007. The 360 had time to build its fan base and library of games. People got bored of waiting and so switched allegiances from Sony to Microsoft.

 

Suddenly Microsoft could do no wrong. The second wave of 360 games brought modern classics such as Lost Planet, Gears of War and Call of Duty 3 to the machine, then two years down the line we got real triple-A next-gen titles such as Bioshock, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Halo 3. Even though some of these appeared on PS3 as well, it was too little too late.

 

When PS3 did launch, I dutifully picked one up from Virgin after pre-ordering but it was soon apparent that I didn’t need to do so as stock was plentiful. Whether this should mean kudos to Sony’s manufacturing plants or whether it is a worrying sign of people not having £400+ quite soon after Christmas to spend on another new console I am still not sure to this day.

PS3 launch games were okay but not great – Motorstorm is admittedly one of the most fun racing games of recent years and Resistance was a half-decent shooter, but there was no real excitement over the exclusive titles. Where was MGS? GTA? DMC? GT? What else could Sony offer the gamer? Motion sensing controls which felt like a tacked on, badly implemented, last minute idea? Less backwards compatibility than every other world territory? No controller rumble? All sadly present and correct.

 

Within a year of release, it is telling that Sony first bundled Motorstorm and Resistance: Fall of Man and an extra controller with the machine for the same £425 launch price, then cut the console price itself by nigh-on £100, then released a more basic model for £299.

 

It is also telling that Sony are in the process of releasing a rumble-enabled controller, and launching their online Sims/Myspace/Facebook hybrid interactive social “game” Home, complete with achievement-style “trophies” for nailing certain feats within games.

 

I cannot believe it has taken Sony this long to realise the impact that the achievement system has had on modern day gaming. Similar to the old-school arcade high-score battles of the eighties, achievements really force people to make the most of their games and add a sense of competition against friends and even unknown online acquaintances. I have (perhaps tragically) sold some PS3 games without playing them in order to get them on 360 simply because of the achievements adding a little something extra. I always used to get the majority of my games on PS2 and just get exclusive titles on Xbox but now this situation has completely reversed.

 

Also, the head start now really shows – I have 11 friends on Xbox Live, all of which I know personally. I have yet to encounter anyone else I know who has bought a PS3, therefore the online elements of many PS3 games are redundant to me.

 

I don’t usually bother with that much online gaming, apart from when friends are online anyway, but it is fascinating to get a snapshot via Xbox Live of what other people on my friends list are doing and how far they have gotten in their games compared to my own progress.

 

When I do venture online, Microsoft’s advantage is even more apparent. Through their long-standing relationship with Bungie, they have really nailed the very best in online gaming systems with Halo 3, including the ability to check stats on the Internet after marathon frag-fests. Shooting your friends has never been such fun, and by being backed up by third-party developers, Microsoft are riding the crest of the modern gaming wave.

 

To sum up, Sony will no doubt cope with all the PS3 uncertainty and produce some killer titles in the next couple of years. We can expect them to really start harnessing the processing power of PS3 and show us things we never thought possible and that the 360 simply can’t compete with – but do not forget, this is what Microsoft tried to do in the last generation and they fell well short of success.

 

Sony will probably consistently come second to Microsoft in Europe due to the ground already lost. It is important to note, however, that the videogaming landscape of 2008 is a very different place to that of a couple of years ago. Third-party developers will no longer produce so many exclusive titles as it simply isn’t cost effective to release a game on only one system. Similarly, we cannot expect first party titles to always blow us away, there will eventually be a limit to the technology – although with not even a rumour of any PS4s or Xbox 720s, the two big guns look to be in this current-gen war for a long while yet. Something has to give, but this particular war is far from over.