150th Review Special, Part 2: Throwing Caution to the Wind

I use yellow scores whenever I can’t officially recommend nor dissuade people from playing the game in question. The exact score I use depends on which way I would go if somebody pressed me enough with a 4/10 meaning probably avoid, a 5/10 meaning I’m not sure, and a 6/10 meaning play if you’re a fan. Either way, we’re officially done talking about bad games from this point onward.

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July 2018 in Summary: At the End of an Arduous Month

Summer is usually my favorite time of the year, but for a litany of reasons, July ended up being quite a hassle. The long and short of it is that after finishing my BioShock 2 review at the end of June, I sought to get a head start on Wario Land. Through a set of very bizarre circumstances, I ended up taking longer than expected with the latter review. When I started on Spirit of Justice directly afterwards, similar to the situation with Prosecutor’s Path, I realized by Wednesday that I wouldn’t be able to finish by the weekend. I therefore spontaneously wrote a review of VVVVVV, as I knew it wouldn’t take too long to write about. Amazingly, even with the extra three days, my Spirit of Justice review ended up taking longer than expected. I was able to finish it by Sunday, but at that point, I had another problem: I only had only a week and a half to finish two reviews. I usually write these reviews during my break periods at work, attempting to get 1,000 words written per day. I knew I couldn’t finish both reviews if I stuck to my usual pattern, so I had to write my Spirit Tracks and BioShock Infinite reviews at the same time (meaning I wrote 1,000 words at home and 1,000 at work). Both reviews ended up being over 6,000 words long.  And this was all on top of seeing fourteen films and writing about them. Ironically, despite being a difficult month, a majority of the reviews I wrote were positive.

It wasn’t easy, but despite of all these setbacks, I was able to pull through and get every single review I promised in the last update finished. Even better – my Ace Attorney retrospective is at last complete! The only downside is that I had to momentarily sacrifice a Reel Life feature. I saw quite a few films at the end of the month, and I intend to post the feature for that week this coming Wednesday. The feature after that shall include whichever films I end up seeing this weekend.

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BioShock Infinite

Introduction

BioShock was released to a universally positive reception in 2007. Those who had been extolling the medium’s storytelling potential for years were particularly enthralled to see it move millions of units. It sold a many people on the idea that a game could have a cerebral plot rather than something akin to a mindless action film. There was only one logical thing for Irrational Games to do in the face of this commercial and critical success: keep the momentum going. However, director Ken Levine and the rest of Irrational Games opted against the idea of working on a direct sequel, leaving the development of BioShock 2 in the hands of Jordan Thomas, one of the original’s primary level designers, and 2K Marin. Mr. Levine, on the other hand wanted to set his sights higher by creating a BioShock game with a different setting. Thankfully for them, Take-Two Interactive allowed them complete freedom in this project.

The development of BioShock 2 was made known in 2008 before seeing its release in 2010. Unbeknownst to the public, Mr. Levine and many of the people behind the original began working on a sequel of their own, dubbed “Project Icarus”, starting in February of 2008. Only six months after the release of BioShock was the concept for this new game formed. In the cycle’s earliest stages, the team considered many different settings. Some wanted to reuse Rapture while others suggested setting it during the Renaissance period. In the end, they decided on a city named Columbia. In a stark contrast to Rapture, which rested on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, Columbia was to float in the skies above. The primary inspiration behind this setting came from The Devil in the White City, a non-fiction book written by Erik Larson in 2003. The book prominently featured the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was set in Chicago in 1893. The staff became interested in setting their game around the turn of the twentieth century and the historical events surrounding the exposition helped inspire the idea of a city in the sky.

With a setting and time period in mind, all Mr. Levine and his team now needed a theme. Rapture, the setting of BioShock and its sequel, sought to deconstruct the ideals of objectivism. They wanted to demonstrate why a society based on those principles would burn itself out quickly. Meanwhile, the World’s Columbian Exposition was considered to symbolize the concept of American exceptionalism – that is to say, the belief the United States is qualitatively different from other nations. Additionally inspired by classic films such as David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the team now had a goal and would stop at nothing to see it through.

The development of this game proved to be something of an arduous process. The original game utilized a modified Unreal Engine 2.x, which was quickly deemed inadequate to support the ideas for Project Icarus. The team decided to work with Unreal Engine 3, and as a result, every single asset had to be made from scratch. As a likely consequence of this, the game ended up taking roughly five years to complete. Its official announcement in March of 2012 finally gave this project a name: BioShock Infinite. It was also given a slated release date of October 16 of that year. However, in May, the release date was pushed back to February 26, 2013. Nearing the end of the year, it was delayed again – this time to the following March – to allow the team to polish the mechanics further. After much speculation from the press and varied reactions to the promotional material, Mr. Levine proudly announced the game had gone Gold in February of 2013. It had been approved by Sony, Microsoft, and PC makers, allowing it to exist on all three platforms simultaneously. As promised, BioShock Infinite was released on March 26, 2013.

As highly regarded as BioShock was, the critical reception to BioShock Infinite achieved the impossible by surpassing it in some circles. The publications that gave it less than nine points on a ten-point scale could likely have been counted on one hand – and this hypothetical person would likely still have fingers remaining. BioShock Infinite proceeded to win the highly desired “Game of the Year” award from forty-two separate publications, including the Associated Press, CNN, and Forbes. Much like the original, critics praised its scenario, paying special attention to its striking visual design. It wasn’t just critics who were singing praises of this game, for it sold 3.7 million retail copies within two months of its release, eventually moving 11 million units overall.

With the success of BioShock Infinite, one would expect the sky to be the limit for Irrational Games. System Shock 2 flopped and was one of the causes of Looking Glass Studios’ bankruptcy only for Irrational Games to rise from the ashes and became a juggernaut among critics and fans alike. Unfortunately, such was not their fate. As a coda to this game’s success, Mr. Levine announced the dissolution of Irrational Games in February of 2014. The average AAA title of the 2010s had a budget that necessitated the company selling tens of millions of units just to break even. As a consequence, games from that era and scene rarely had a powerful, auteur voice, for any kind of experimental title could bankrupt a company instantaneously if it didn’t sell. Not only that, but because they had been working on the game for five years, the cycle took its toll on the staff. Mr. Levine himself would state in a 2016 interview that the stress of managing the development of BioShock Infinite adversely affected both his health and his personal relationships, causing him to opt out of directing an even larger sequel.  In its seventeen-year life, Irrational Games was only responsible for the development of a handful of projects. Was BioShock Infinite a particularly triumphant swansong for Irrational Games?

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BioShock 2

Introduction

Ken Levine’s BioShock was a critical success upon its 2007 release. In an era when console games weren’t expected to have plots more advanced than what one would find in a B-movie, a mainstream release that regularly touched upon erudite themes stood out in the best way possible. Contrary to what a wary person not in tune with the medium would believe, Mr. Levine’s willingness to take his audience seriously paid off from a commercial standpoint as well. Fans and critics alike instantly recognized BioShock as a significant step forward for video game storytelling. This was a far cry from the reception System Shock 2 received wherein it wallowed in obscurity until it received recognition in various retrospectives several years after the fact. With a hit on their hands, the 2K Marin staff did what any developer would do under the circumstances: set out to make a sequel.

Helming this project was Jordan Thomas while series creator Ken Levine occasionally provided creative input. Given that the potential endings of BioShock provided airtight conclusions, the first concern Mr. Thomas found himself facing was the question of where they could possibly go from there.

“How do you bring people back to an experience and terrify them and shock them in a way that they’re not expecting, but also fulfill the many expectations they’re projecting onto it?”

Nonetheless, he decided that his game couldn’t truly be considered a sequel to BioShock unless he set it in the city of Rapture. Luckily for him, Mr. Levine had created a setting teeming with many unseen locations and untold stories that making a sequel would be viable. 2K Marin thus set out with a team of eight to create a new game, adding seventy-eight additional personnel during the peak phases of development.

Like Ken Levine before him, Jordan Thomas took a decidedly unusual approach to level design. Teams consisting of an environmental artist and a level designer worked together to design each area of the game. This was a stark contrast to the standard approach wherein developers would design the level first and hand their work over to the art teams so they could add further details. Level designer Steve Gaynor recalled in interviews that with their approach, they could ensure the environments felt like places once inhabited by people.

The public’s first exposure to this project’s existence came in the form of a teaser trailer included with the PlayStation 3 version, which was originally made available in 2008. Initial media reports suggested the title of this game would bear the subtitle Sea of Dreams. It was eventually clarified that “Sea of Dreams” only referred to the trailer and not the game itself. As the team quickly revealed, the game was to be simply titled BioShock 2. The first substantial details were revealed in the April 2009 edition of Game Informer magazine. Around this time, the marketing department launched the site “There’s Something in the Sea” as a means to virally spread word of BioShock 2. Demo footage debuted on the Spike TV show GameTrailers TV with Geoff Keighley, showcasing many features such as the ability to walk underwater.

Though BioShock was well received, certain circles criticized it for its lack of multiplayer. The first-person shooter scene had built part of its identity on multiplayer deathmatches. Quake was the game that could be said to have popularized them while Halo brought them to the console market. As a response to this criticism, 2K Marin contracted designers from Digital Extremes to produce a multiplayer component complete with its own scenario.

After much speculation, BioShock 2 was at last released worldwide in February of 2010. Like its predecessor, BioShock 2 received largely positive reviews. Mainstream outlets praised the game for ironing out the unpolished aspects of the original. At the same time, they lauded the story for building upon the foundation of its predecessor. Despite receiving universal praise, a particularly vocal subset originating from the independent circuit was a bit more skeptical. One prominent critic accused the game of being a cheap cash-in while another expressed that the multiplayer component cheapened the series’ strong narrative. Regardless, the game was a commercial success, moving three million units across all platforms by March of 2010. Despite this, Take-Two Interactive’s Chief Financial Officer noted that the game’s sales were lower than expected and also took a relatively short amount of time to slow down. Prior to its release, a Take-Two chairman stated that he expected the game to sell five million units. From this, it could be inferred that the overall reception to BioShock 2 was more mixed than an analysis of the scores it received across numerous publications would lead one to believe. Is BioShock 2 a worthy sequel or is it a transparent attempt to capitalize on its predecessor’s success?

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BioShock

Introduction

With many alumni from Looking Glass Studios, game designer Ken Levine founded Irrational Games in 1997. Their first game was System Shock 2. Released in 1999, it was a sequel to System Shock, a first-person shooter released five years prior. Despite gaining a following, it fell by the wayside in favor of the more popular Doom. This seemed to foreshadow the fate of System Shock 2, as it had been released in the wake of Half-Life, causing it to disappear from the public consciousness rather quickly. Mr. Levine attempted to pitch a sequel to System Shock 2 to the game’s publisher, Electronic Arts, but they were ultimately rejected due to its poor sales performance. The subsequent dissolution of Looking Glass Studios in 2000 all but ensured the series’ abrupt end as the rights were acquired by Electronic Arts.

Irrational Games would go on to develop other titles such as Freedom Force, Tribes: Vengeance, and SWAT 4. Though these titles were modest successes, Mr. Levine desired to create another game similar to that of System Shock 2 – one with a free form and a strong narrative. In 2002, his team came up with a gameplay mechanic centered on three factions: drones, protectors, and harvesters. Guarded by protectors, drones would carry a desirable resource while harvesters attempted take it away from them. With a rough outline of what this hypothetical game entailed, all they needed was a setting.

The team unveiled a demonstration in 2002 built on the second Unreal Engine for the Xbox. This demo was set on a space station overtaken by genetically altered monsters. The protagonist was named Carlos Cuello, who worked as a cult deprogrammer – that is, someone charged with rescuing people from a cult, readjusting them to a normal life. They could be hired for much more nefarious purposes as well. As an example Mr. Levine gave, parents could use their services to deprogram their daughter who was in a lesbian relationship. The narrative was also intended to be political in nature with the main character having been hired by a senator. Unfortunately, the team ran into a twofold problem with this concept. They collectively agreed it was not what they set out to make and were having difficulties finding a publisher. They considered scrapping the project, but once their efforts to make a spiritual successor to System Shock 2 began appearing in various gaming publications, they decided to go forward and fully revamp the concept.

In a stroke of good fortune, 2K Games, a subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive, offered to publish the game based on the core drone/protector/harvester concept in 2004. Even better, the team was allowed freedom to develop both the story and the setting. Both had changed considerably since the project’s inception. By the time Mr. Levine and his team found a willing publisher, they contemplated setting the game in an abandoned World War II-era Nazi laboratory unearthed by twenty-first century scientists. The experiments then formed the ecosystem centered on the three aforementioned factions. Many elements from System Shock 2 found their way into this project including psychic powers, a character relaying important information to the protagonist over a radio, and story elements delivered through scattered audio recordings.

Internal strife and communication problems brought about due to the team expanding from six to sixty people wound up making for a somewhat troubled production. To make matters worse, the environments they came up with were considered bland. Fortunately, these issues were resolved when the team’s artists realized the true importance of coming up with visions to meet the goals of the level designers.

This wasn’t the end of the team’s production woes, however. According to level designer Jean Paul LeBreton, Mr. Levine was distrustful of the more egotistical new hires. He often got into arguments with them to enforce his vision. Moreover, the executives of 2K Games were concerned with the project’s growing budget. As the mid-2000s saw an increase in popularity for the first-person shooter genre thanks to Halo and Call of Duty, they requested that Mr. Levine market the game in a way so as to compete directly with those franchises. This meant having to shift away from the first-person shooter/role-playing hybrid they set out to create in favor of placing more of an emphasis on the former half of that equation. As the targeted release date drew near, Mr. Levine ordered the team into round-the-clock development, only exacerbating the strife among themselves. Thankfully, 2K Games granted Mr. Levine’s team an extra three months, allowing them to fix programming errors that were otherwise difficult to catch.

January of 2007 marked a crucial moment for playtesting. Damningly, the feedback they received from players was mostly negative, as they believed the game to be too dark to see, causing them to get lost. They couldn’t even trust the man on the other side of the protagonist’s radio feed, describing him as a “lecherous Colonel Sanders”. Taking these criticisms to heart, the team addressed the problems. In a second late-stage playtesting session with the game being described as being ninety-nine percent complete, the feedback was still negative with the audience feeling no connection to the protagonist. The next day, Mr. Levine and his team decided to add an introductory cutscene to the game. He originally opted not to include any cutscenes, feeling ideologically opposed to them, but he and his team felt it was a good, quick way to respond to the criticism.

At long last, the game was released in August of 2007 under the name BioShock. While System Shock and its sequel wallowed away in obscurity for the longest time before receiving retroactive vindication, BioShock was a commercial success upon release. The Xbox 360 version sold nearly 500,000 copies. Meanwhile, critics adored the game, believing it to be a significant step forward in storytelling for the medium. On the subject of the best years in gaming, 2007 is popular choice with the release of BioShock being a common reason to cite for holding such a belief. Despite all of this, the game’s hellish production cycle ended up causing many members of the team to leave Irrational Games to pursue other projects once it was finished. Whenever one wished to extol the medium’s artistic qualities, BioShock was quick to be mentioned. Does it stand to this day as one of the medium’s greatest story-driven experiences?

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A Question for the Readers #6: Late to the Party

We’ve all had a time in which, for whatever reason, we didn’t check out that one landmark work when it was released. Maybe you were too busy at the time and forgot about it until years later. Perhaps you weren’t in the mood to see what it had to offer. It could’ve even resulted from the decidedly strict limitation of not having been born yet. Whatever the case may be, I’m positive we’ve all had that experience in which we didn’t get into a work months, years, or even decades after the fact… sometimes to our detriment. Ever hear the phrase “You had to be there”? I feel that applies to certain works out there. It’s not to say they haven’t held up well, but for a lot of them, you miss out on a certain something by getting into them after the fact.

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100th Review Special, Part 8: The Elite Eights

I have to admit that between the three colors I use, the green tiers are the ones for which my process of assigning grades is the least scientific. When I was developing my rating system, I wanted to make it clear to readers that a game really has to go the extra mile to earn an 8/10 or higher so as not to devalue the highest grades. Admittedly, it does come down to gut feelings to a greater extent than when I’m entertaining the idea of assigning a red or yellow score. For games I’ve awarded an 8/10, there might be a few minor issues present, but they’re easy to overlook in favor of appreciating what they do well. These are games you should give high priority should they end up on your backlog.

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Start Strong, End Strong

Pictured - A better ending than that of The Last of Us

Introduction

Regardless of the medium, a bad ending is one of the worst flaws a work can have. It’s one of the few mistakes that the author cannot recover from without resorting to sequels and extensive retconning. I am, and always have been, a stickler for endings. Indeed, I’ve made it a rule when critiquing that any work with a lackluster ending is not worthy of being deemed a classic and the highest score it could ever hope to get is a 6/10, which roughly translates to a B- in my book. While discussing the nature of story progression with my fellow games enthusiast, Aether, he perfectly illustrated why I insist on holding this belief.

“A weak ending is one of the few things that can retroactively lower the quality of a story, turning sour all the good memories of what you’ve been reading, watching, or playing.”

–Aether

This is especially crucial for video games; you want to reward your audience for overcoming a challenge and having the tenacity to see your work through to the end. Depriving them of a good ending is one of the worst insults any development team can dish out. In all of the games I’ve played over the years, three stand out as having endings so bad, the good memories I had of them were almost completely erased. They should be studied by writers as what to avoid when crafting and structuring their stories. In order to demonstrate my points, I will have to resort to spoilers, so if you are at all interested in playing the following games, feel free to skip those sections. Don’t worry though, should I mention other games in the following sections, I will be sure to include spoiler tags if needed.

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