Tag Archives: Review

Defiance Fails to Defy Mediocrity

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Reviewing a massively multiplayer game is difficult. An MMO always has more content, balancing, and fixes added in after launch, and most of them typically have a few features missing or incomplete. Defiance is no exception. In some ways, it’s a prime example of a game released before it’s had time to be properly completed, but far enough along in development that they’ve ironed out the glaring issues. There’s nothing specifically wrong with it, but it’s nowhere near as completed as it could be. It’s merely “competent”.

Thankfully, Trion Worlds did not release a broken game with Defiance, just one that hadn’t yet fully matured. All of the systems work and there are no game-breaking flaws as are present with so many other MMO launches. It’s simply that what is there is not as fleshed out as one would hope for such an ambitious project.

What this title does differently right out of the gate, though, is hook you with an interesting premise. Defiance is a tie-in game to a SyFy channel original show of the same name which takes place in a destroyed and terraformed St. Louis, Missouri. The game, however, is set in the similarly destroyed and terraformed bay area surrounding the coastal city of San Francisco, California.

A catastrophe involving crashed alien ships has caused Earth to be transformed into something nearly unrecognizable. In this post-apocalypse, the few humans and aliens band together to attempt to survive while salvaging useful alien ‘arktech’ from wrecked ships and try to forge a living with what remains. If you’re already starting to feel lost from that lack of exposition, then don’t worry, you aren’t alone. Since this is a television tie-in game, Trion seems content to let most of the actual backstory be told in the show.

A short slideshow gives the very basic gist of just what the hell’s going on and then a few cutscenes later you’re dropped into the world. You’ll likely pick up bits and pieces along the way, but most of the game’s setting and characters are completely unexplained without heading to the Wikipedia entry.

Drab Locations

Those familiar with the Bay Area in our real world may notice some dissimilarities with the Bay Area in Defiance as Trion has taken some major liberties in constructing this open-world playground. Notably, the city of San Francisco is now a desolated island and the beautiful rolling hills of Marin County and the picturesque Golden Gate Bridge are now have been replaced with fields of brown dust and a towering heap of twisted metal respectively.

If you were sick of modern games featuring desaturated colors and various shades of grey, be prepared to be disappointed by Defiance. While there are some interesting graphical perks like pretty explosions and reasonably high-quality character and enemy models, the overall graphical fidelity of Defiance leaves much to be desired. Expect to see multitudes of destroyed buildings and streets nearly everywhere you go, all complete with muddy textures and low-quality models.

A poor draw distance and disappearing NPC models from long range puts the final nail in what could have been a great looking game. The design seems to be there in fits and starts, but the actual look of the world is just a step above an eyesore. Thankfully, the game does scale very well to older hardware, although given that this title wouldn’t be graphically out of place 6 years ago, this isn’t necessarily a surprise.

Though the locales may be drab, the way you get around them is certainly not. Early in the game you’re given access to a personal vehicle, with new rides available for purchase later on. They’re fast, agile, and very fun to drive. The handling of some of the larger vehicles leaves a bit to be desired, but their faster speed or sturdier shields can make up for a lot of lost maneuverability from the off-road quad bikes.

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Menu navigation is a big problem in the PC version of Defiance. Unlike in most MMOs, any active menu will fill the entire screen and the screens themselves are a chore to navigate. It absolutely reeks of a concession for the console versions that translated poorly to PC, as does most of the interface in the game. To go from menu to menu (from Character Loadout to Settings, for example), you must hit ESC, hold the spacebar, and then click the option you want from a popup radial menu. It’s obtrusive and unnecessary, but on a slight positive note, the menus do look very slick. It’s also worth noting that there are almost no graphical settings to speak of. A simply “Quality” selector and a few other bits and bobs amounts to the entirety of graphical customization.

Through my many hours of playing through the early days of Defiance, one thing has become very clear to me: this game is basically Borderlands The MMO. Combat, items, weapon design and function, and game mechanics and skill trees are all hugely reminiscent of Borderlands and Borderlands 2. It’s almost as if Trion took the ideas from Gearbox’s franchise and stuck them into a destroyed world with Guild Wars 2‘s questing system. It’s not uncommon given their history for Trion Worlds to “borrow ideas” from other MMOs, but Defiance proves different enough from the many games it derives from that never once does it feel like you’re playing a two-bit knockoff of another title.

Episode Mission 4

The quests and storyline of Defiance is hit and miss. Public quests in the style of Guild Wars 2 or Warhammer Online are present here but in a very limited capacity. They generally amount to running to an objective and holding the ‘Use’ key to complete it or defending an outpost for a set amount of time. The repeating side missions provide little challenge, little reward, and very little fun. Said optional missions are just a unnecessary distraction, however, as the real meat of the questing comes from the Story and Episode missions.

Story Missions lead you through the main campaign of Defiance in a rather impressive cinematic quest chain. The character models and voice acting in these missions are leaps and bounds above the quality of the rest of the game and you’ll actually feel compelled to go through them instead of just going through the motions and clicking “Complete”. Interesting characters and engaging story arcs are the silver lining in what would otherwise be a rather run-of-the-mill game.

Perhaps the best example of the storytelling that Defiance has to offer are the Episode Missions. Episode Missions are, as their title implies, missions that are tied to the actual Defiance television program. Your avatar joins the main characters Nolan and Irisa on various missions to help them escape from the Bay Area to head to their eventual destination of Antarctica.  In what capacity they actually influence the show remains to be seen, but what is for certain is that they provide some of the most interesting story and character-driven content in the game.

Nolan and Irisa along with the various side characters inject a fantastic narrative into the interesting setting of Defiance along with providing a bit more detail on the backstory of the world. The presentation of the Episode Missions is cinematic in every sense. Dynamic camera angles, appropriate musical cues, and well-animated characters all contribute to a sense of high production value, none of which I was expecting in an MMO.

Episode Mission 6

These missions, especially the cutscenes, feel like the natural progression of what The Old Republic was trying to accomplish with their cinematic presentation, but Defiance has the advantage of well-done animations and characters that actually show emotion. Don’t expect to be making any moral choices here, though; the storylines of Defiance are on a very strict rail and you’re just along for the ride. This is really not a complaint so much as a general statement, as I wouldn’t really expect to be able to personally influence the major characters from the tie-in TV show.

Perhaps the most exciting multiplayer portions of Defiance are the arkfalls. These randomly-generated, sprawling encounters have multiple phases that encourage players to converge in a smaller area of the map to cooperate toward a single goal. Smaller objectives build into larger ones, eventually setting all of the potentially 100+ man strong force against a single boss encounter. They are long enough to feel substantial, reward you for contributing, are difficult without being frustrating, and give you real, tangible encouragement to actually give it your best to complete them.

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The skill tree in Defiance is an exercise in frustration and poor design. The EGO Grid, as it’s called, works very similarly to the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X or the Passive Abilities in Path of Exile. There are four active abilities to pick from such as a temporary speed increase or damage boost, but the abilities are so short-lived that they do little to influence your style of play. In addition, the perks, or passive abilities, that can be acquired through additional skill points are boring and underwhelming, such as small percentage bonuses to specific types of damage.

Worse yet, the perks that surround each of the four starting points are catered specifically to a single playstyle. Want to use the Cloak ability to sneak behind enemies? That’s great as long as you’re using a sniper rifle, as every perk surrounding Cloak deals almost exclusively in dealing extra damage with headshots. The same is true with the Overcharge damage boost — nearly every perk surrounding it is activated with explosives, something a machine gunner would never use. This unfortunate shoehorning of playstyles can ruin attractive skill choices and frustrate players looking to play the way they see fit.

The gunplay in Defiance won’t light the world on fire, but for what the game is (an MMO) it does it reasonably well. Taking cover from fire, controlling recoil, and aiming precisely are all important skills to master in Defiance, as is choosing the correct loadout. In what I consider a supremely foolish move, Trion has restricted the number of weapons per loadout to two. Yes, in a game with an overabundance of interesting and unique weapon choices, you are expected to use precisely two of them in any given encounter. Changing the loadouts can be done in combat, but you must open the menu screen and manually switch them, though there is no penalty in doing so.

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The guns themselves perhaps steal the show in Defiance far more than any story mission. I alluded to Borderlands earlier and not for no reason. Randomized weapon effects and visual variety is one of the major highlights in the game. From sniper rifles that shoot dark energy to double-barreled shotguns that fire grenades instead of shells, the number of interesting and wacky weapons that you can find in Defiance is staggering. Very rarely if ever will you find a weapon that’s the same as another. Adding to this is the ability to attach mods to your weapons that have actual visual distinctions. The minor bonuses the mods confer make their practical use underwhelming, but the customizable style and flair they add to the weapons still gives a big reason to use them.

Sadly, levelling up through Defiance’s 5000 EGO Rankings, or levels as they’re more commonly known, is less exciting than it sounds. Yes, there are thousands of levels, but there is very little sense of progression from level 1. Every weapon you acquire will do a set amount of damage based on its type. The very first sniper rifle you get in the game will still be competitive with the Level 400 rifle you obtain later. The main difference between them will be visuals and the variety of stat distribution. It doesn’t help that many weapon and grenade types feel worthless or redundant, as well.

This lack of progression, more than anything, is what will hold Defiance back from becoming a great game. Within the first two to three hours of Defiance, you’ve seen and done almost everything there is to do. After the story missions are finished and you’ve gotten your fill of arkfalls, there remains very little enticing you to return to the game.

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Weapon collecting is only viable for so long as the weapons themselves never upgrade in stats. The random events are only fun for the first few times, and then you’re tired of them. The lack of things to do is something that plagues new MMOs, but in this sense Defiance is one of the absolute worst offenders of the genre.

The longevity of the game is entirely dependent on new updates and DLC, which Trion is no doubt hard at work on. You’ll have to fork over some extra for the good stuff, though — a $40 season pass is available to get all the additional content, and one can only hope they are expansion-sized to justify that price tag. Trion does have a good track record for delivering post-launch content, though, so it may yet save the title in the future.

If nothing else, what the Defiance game has encouraged me to do is check out the “Defiance” TV show to learn more about the characters and world. I suppose in that sense, mission accomplished to the marketing team behind Trion and SyFy. The biggest crime here is that a fantastic setting and interesting characters are held back by a merely competent and utterly forgettable game. The most that can be said about Defiance as a whole is that it exists, and merely existing in the MMO space is a death knell for any new franchise.

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New content and a tie-in show may reinvigorate this game that has such huge potential, but for now we are given a not broken, yet incomplete video game. An MMO is defined by its launch and the short time after, but it may very well be that anything that is added down the line will be too little too late for Defiance.

6/10

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Lara’s Raiding Career Escapes its Tomb

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“Keep moving forward.”

The venerable Tomb Raider franchise has seen its share of ups and downs since the first game was released for the original PlayStation in 1996. Tomb Raider was immensely popular because of its unusual, fantastical environments and emphasis on puzzle solving. Oh, and it was also popular because of its buxom, barely-clothed heroine, Lara Croft. “Sex sells,” as the maxim goes, and Tomb Raider‘s was no exception. The marketing focused on it, the gamers focused on it, and it seems to me that entirely too much time was spent shoving additional polygons into her ‘assets’, or at least as many as the PlayStation classic was able to render.

The storytelling and character development of the series continued to advance, but not to grow. Lara’s physical features became more pronounced with each new title and graphical upgrade, and the series evolved alongside and even heavily influenced its contemporaries in the early turn of the 21st century. Lara Croft, for better or worse, became an industry icon as “The Lead Female Protagonist”, taking a place among characters like Mario, Link, Sonic, and Megaman.

In the nearly 20 years since the first title, the franchise has been iterated upon, exploited, rebooted, genre switched, and even outright abandoned at times. The series, while having a few good titles from the original developers Core Design as well as other studios, never reached the popularity that it once had when it was originally released back in the mid 90s. It eventually became a parody of itself — ridiculous, cartoonish characters and a game that still relied almost solely on Lara and her short-shorts to sell copies. When this failed, the franchise did as well.

The last Tomb Raider title came five years ago in the form of Tomb Raider Underworld, a forgettable action adventure made to tie up the story of the previous three Raider titles. While some spin-offs have had reasonable success, the main series had remained stagnant and forgotten, unable to be held up by the weight of current genre demands. Lara’s success as an icon was borne not from her adventuring or puzzle solving. Like it or not, it came from her sex appeal, and the ship of her success had long since sailed away.

That has all been given the opportunity to change, though, with this year’s newest title from the Raider franchise. Simply titled Tomb Raider, the 2013 franchise reboot, created by the longtime series developer Crystal Dynamics, aims to reinvigorate the franchise using updated graphics, modern gameplay elements and a new, more vulnerable Lara Croft, fresh out of school and just starting her adventuring career. Tomb Raider puts the player in the hiking boots of a Lara who doesn’t dual wield pistols, back flip over Velociraptors, or have a giant mansion in London.

No, this Lara is scared,inexperienced, and unprepared. Raider 2013’s main objective is to show this weak and helpless Lara change from the action survivor she starts off as into the action hero she becomes. Crystal Dynamics shows us that this transformation is not going to be an easy one; Lara has to earn her place among gaming’s icons this time around with copious amounts of blood, sweat, and bullets. She is no sex symbol in this title. She is a real, living, and reasonably proportioned young girl struggling to catch a breath from one moment to the next.

Tomb Raider Plane

The most immediate difference from the previous entries is Tomb Raider’s cinematic presentation. The game borrows heavily from the set pieces and scripted action sequences of the Uncharted franchise. Ironically, Uncharted was even poked fun at in 2007 for stealing from the other Tomb Raider titles, with some going so far as to dub it “Dude Raider”. The circle of “borrowing” has come full circle, it seems, as Tomb Raider feels more similar to the Uncharted games than the latter ever did the former.

Lara and the crew she accompanies sets off into unknown waters off the coast of Japan in search for the lost island of Yamatai. The various locales on the island range from grandiose and breathtaking to drab and boring. The ruins and ancient temples are modeled with extreme and careful detail, but these amazing sights are nearly offset by the appearance of generic caves and dust-worn shanty towns. The presence of dilapidated Japanese World War II bunkers, however, offer an interesting environmental and narrative twist to what would otherwise be another romp through ruins.

Assisting in the visuals is a beautiful game engine. High texture quality, plentiful (but not overused) post-process effects, and some impressive optimization all make for a fantastic PC version of this title. An option for TressFX hair simulation for Lara’s ponytail is also available, but this new technology looks odd and confers a staggering performance hit even on higher-end machines. Thankfully it’s not required and Lara’s default hair looked perfectly fine to me. The company behind the PC port, Nixxes, also handled the exceptional port of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. They deserve high praise for their work on the Windows version of Tomb Raider, and it’s without a doubt the best platform to play this game on.

The Lara is this reboot is subjected to many, many kinds of excruciating anguish, not the least of which is physical. In the first 20 minutes alone she is beaten, bruised, burned, impaled, hung upside-down, and nearly drowned. The most important pain she must suffer, though, is mental. The emotional impact of taking the life of the man attempting to force himself upon her must be quickly washed away as Lara realizes she has to fight tooth and nail just to stay alive. Eventually, her “natural instincts as a Croft” allow her to slip into a stronger mental state where she is no longer just fighting to stay alive but instead fighting to protect those she cares about. Lara’s cries of “Please leave me alone!” in combat change into “I’m coming to get you bastards!” by the game’s end, although the transformation from scared little girl into accomplished killer may be too stark for some.

The supporting cast Lara fights to protect, however, are much less people than they are clichéd archetypes. The protective father figure, spiritual Samoan cook, and geeky tech guy are all present here, and nearly nothing is done to attempt to turn them into stronger, more compelling characters as is done so expertly for Lara herself. If it was the intention of Crystal Dynamics to have us feel empathy or anger when terrible things happen to Lara’s compatriots, it most certainly failed.

The main villain of the game is your run-of-the-mill madman protected by an army of devout zealots, but the interesting bits of opposition comes in the form of the supernatural. What would a Tomb Raider game be without some magical goings on, after all? In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I’ll simply say that the supernatural aspects of Raider are some of its most interesting, but disappointingly sparse and underdeveloped.

Tomb Raider Combat

Where Crystal Dynamics absolutely succeeds, though, is the actual gameplay. Platforming and gun play are split about 50/50 in Tomb Raider and there is plenty done to keep them both interesting, at least for the majority of the game. Lara feels extremely solid to control and never will she perform an action that you didn’t intend. Good “game feel” is an art form that is not easily perfected, but Tomb Raider nails it. Lara’s movements during climbing and combat are startlingly realistic, though you may raise an eyebrow at the borderline inhuman leaps and bounds she manages to make. She reacts to interesting objects in the environment, slides her hand along a walls when walking close to them, and takes cover from enemy gunfire fluidly and expediently. Lara also has access to various tools that assist her traversal of Yamatai.

There are very few games that control as good as Tomb Raider does, even when set side-by-side to its most obvious comparison, Uncharted. Expect to see a lot of button-mashing quick time events, though. While I wasn’t personally bothered by them, some players may be turned off by their heavy inclusion in scripted events. In addition, should you ever feel lost while traversing the world, a quick press of the Q key or RB/R1 buttons will show Lara’s “Survival Instincts”, fading her surroundings into grayscale while highlighting important or interactive objects. This kind of optional assist is becoming much more prevalent in games and Tomb Raider encourages its use, but never forces it upon you.

The combat in Raider is a fairly straightforward cover shooter, though using cover is not necessarily required. Instead of a snap cover system like Gears of War, Lara slides in and out of cover simply by moving close to it. It was a gamble to rely on such an uncontrollable contextual mechanic to keep the player protected during the numerous gunfights, but it works beautifully and I strongly believe that this technology should be incorporated into future games. The weapons and enemies Lara uses and faces are far less interesting. Generic, nameless mooks charge into the line of fire of your generic, nameless firearms and expose themselves to well-placed shots for entirely too long, causing most combat situations to be easily beaten.

A melee and execution ability is gained later in the game that makes even being swarmed by machete-wielding enemies a mere inconvenience. The standout of Lara’s tools is certainly the bow; this weapon shines above the rest as being satisfyingly challenging to use while still staying effective in combat. Upgrades are available to all weapons using salvage collected from the environment, and although none of the upgrades are absolutely necessary, they do assist in bringing down some of the more heavily armored foes. Lara can also upgrade her own abilities using a strangely out-of-place experience system.

The sound design and voice acting in Tomb Raider deserve special praise. The members of Lara’s crew, uninspired as they are, all voice acted superbly. Oddly enough, it’s Lara herself that suffers from the occasional hokey, phoned-in sounding lines of dialogue. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s jarring when it does. The baddies of the island also have things to say and despite their rather boring appearance and sometimes incompetent AI, their voice acting is once again very well-done. You can hear candid conversations as you stalk enemies, convincing shouts of pain when they’re hit with stray bullets, and combat chatter is varied and add a sense or urgency or empowerment as you fight them.

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What about the actual tombs, though? This is a Tomb Raider game after all, is it not? It may come as a surprise that, despite being in the title, the actual act of raiding tombs is not only completely optional but surprisingly unrewarding. The numerous “secret” tombs that dot the island of Yamatai (which are ironically pointed out to you in large, bold letters as you pass by them) are accessible throughout the game and they provide the only real puzzle-solving that Raider has to offer. The puzzles are typically simple, one-room affairs that require a bit of planning ahead but very seldom any quick thinking or reflexes.

In its defense and despite its name, Tomb Raider is less about the actual raiding of tombs and more about Lara’s personal story, which it portrays rather well. With a different title, they probably could have gotten away with so little raiding, but it’s something that came to be expected due to the series’ pedigree and the reboot disappoints in this regard. The various trinkets, notebooks, and ruins that Lara discovers and offers some informative narration about do serve as a nice segue into her future exploits, but they are unfortunately underutilized in this current game.

Also bundled with Tomb Raider is a multiplayer component. Like Uncharted’s offering, it’s wholly unremarkable, but does offer a progression system and multiple game modes that may keep players interested for a while. You’d likely not lose anything by never playing it, but it is there should the urge for some merely average multiplayer third-person shooting ever arise.

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Despite its flaws and missed opportunities, Tomb Raider is most certainly a game worth playing. You won’t run a gamut of emotions and the gun play won’t knock your socks off, but Raider is a title much greater than the sum of its parts, and for every mundane moment or foolish AI glitch, there is a breathtaking vista or harrowing escape waiting to be experienced. Lara’s origins as a greenhorn adventurer set a strong foundation for her future as a world-class action archaeologist and I absolutely look forward to future titles with this reborn heroine.

7.5/10

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Bioshock Presents Infinite Possibilities

Booker and Elizabeth

“Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.”

This simple phrase that drives you through the floating world of Bioshock Infinite has as many meanings as its title implies. For a while, it seemed as if this game would never be released. Or, if it would, it would not be to the quality that we were hoping for. Infinite suffered through development hell in the same way that many games do, yet after months of delay, personnel switches, and leagues of scrapped content, the newest title from the mind of Kevin Levine and 2K’s Irrational Games has finally gone gold. It’s not unusual for a blockbuster title to garner the attention (or ire) of so many gamers and publications, but Bioshock Infinite was billed as the real sequel to the 2007 masterpiece that was the original Bioshock.

With such a high pedigree, it almost seemed that Infinite was destined to live in the shadow of its predecessor, a game which many thought was the true standout of our generation and unlikely to be equaled in its immersiveness, inventiveness, and incredible art direction and storytelling. I am ecstatic to say that Bioshock Infinite, with all its issues during production and impossibly high expectations, somehow manages to take its own wings and soar above the bar of standards created by any games previously, including the original Bioshock. It’s simply a game that cannot be missed.

From the outset, the presentation of Infinite is astounding. Much like the original Bioshock, you’re taken from a lighthouse to an impossibly constructed and impossibly beautiful city via an automated transport, except this time the city in question, Columbia, is floating thousands of feet in the air instead of settled deep at the ocean floor. It is worth a special mention that Columbia is absolutely beautiful. The art direction coalesces with the technical design in such a magnificent way that each time you turn a street corner or look into the wide, sweeping vistas, you’re almost guaranteed to gasp wide-eyed in awe.

From the early 20th century styled brick buildings to steampunk-inspired industrial districts, every bit of Infinite is dripping with style, care, and polish. Columbia is not just a setting, it is a breathing, living place. You’ll be treated to suspiciously familiar musical numbers playing through phonographs and citizens humming their favorite hymns as you pass by them on the street, and the old standby sound effects like the health pack clip from System Shock and Bioshock also make a nostalgic return.

One of the largest changes from the previous titles, besides the location, is the protagonist. Unlike Jack or Subject Delta, our less-than-heroic protagonist Booker DeWitt is given a voice and personality and the results exceed expectations. We’re able to audibly hear Booker’s insight and motivations as well as his interactions with the people and environment around him and it pays off in dividends. DeWitt is given only one objective: find an imprisoned girl named Elizabeth in Columbia and bring her back to New York City to finally erase his years of gambling debt. Booker DeWitt is not a perfect man. In fact, it’s very quickly discovered that he’s not even a particularly good one.

An ex-Pinkerton agent and U.S. soldier present during the “battle” of Wounded Knee, DeWitt has been constantly wracked with debt and depression for most of his life and it was finally catching up to him until he received his way out. “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt,” was the only choice he had remaining, and he accepted the ultimatum in the hopes of finally recapturing what life he had left. Booker is capable, daring, and willing to do what it takes to complete his objectives, but also relatable enough as an everyman through his speech and mannerisms for the player to feel connected with him.

The other main character of the journey is Elizabeth, the “princess in the tower” of Bioshock Infinite. She is wholly removed from the poor choices of Booker’s life and she displays a childlike innocence when interacting with every detail of Columbia, from its most wondrous to its most morose.  Once you find her and she joins you on your quest through Columbia, you’ll discover that she is much more than just a damsel in distress. Elizabeth never once feels like a tacked-on companion or a game-long escort target. Instead, she actively assists you during the game, tossing you supplies or picking locks as necessary. She also has access to the mysterious ability to open “tears” in reality, bringing things not yet seen or heard from time and space into reality.

Her character – that of the innocent, wide-eyed doe – is what makes Booker and the player so protective of her and causes her mere presence to be such a powerful motivator to carry on. Elizabeth scrambles for cover, frantically brings you back from the brink of death when your health meter depletes (a cool in-universe way to revive you from ‘dying’), and even gasps in terror when she sees you use a particularly gruesome execution move on an enemy. Don’t expect this young girl persona to stick around forever, though; she learns, grows, and advances as a character throughout Infinite from a defenseless girl into a capable woman. Elizabeth, perhaps even more than Booker, is the main character in this tale.

Columbia Intro

The world Booker and Elizabeth are thrust into is at once utterly alien and entirely familiar. Led by the Columbians’ beloved prophet Zachary Comstock, Columbia was modeled as a floating standard bearer of turn-of-the-century America and it shines through at every moment. From the stars and stripes adorning every brick-laid general store, to children playing baseball in the street, to the enormous floating statues of America’s Founding Fathers, Columbia is in every way a testament to American nationalism taken up to eleven.

However, for its wonderfully ear-pleasing barbershop quartets, innocent, giggling women in bonnets gossiping around a park bench, and “Top of the mornin’ to ya” shop owners, Columbia also hosts a bevy of less-than-desirable traits, but only by our modern standards. The people of Columbia believe in their superiority in every way — technology, morals, and especially race and religion.

Fanatical religious dedication, extreme American Exceptionalism, and class and racial superiority are but a few of the extremely adult themes that rear their heads in Infinite. These issues are rarely touched on in such a meaningful way in any type of media without a bit of trepidation, but Infinite presents them without any qualms. It doesn’t shove the issues down your throat, but instead presents them all in such a way as to be foreboding, immediate, and unfortunately relatable.

While not directly presented as a current political commentary, it’s undoubtedly not by accident that many of the tougher topics seen in Columbia are still relevant to Americans today. Racism, exceptionalism, and perceived superiority are all still very real in the world of 2013 and Infinite draws the player to take a hard look at just how these unfortunate realities impact not just Booker, Elizabeth, and the citizens of Columbia, but also the real world and their everyday lives.

Infinite Combat

Bioshock Infinite is also a video game, though, not just a pretty locale and an involving story. Some games are content to give a great story and skimp on gameplay while others give enjoyable combat while having no real narrative to speak of. For this title, Irrational Games wasn’t content to simply rest on their laurels. Infinite boasts a frantic, fast-paced, and decision-based combat… at least on higher difficulties. I cannot recommend enough playing Infinite on hard mode. Easy and Medium are just far too mindless while hard will make you switch up your tactics on the fly to deal with ruthless enemies that don’t just fall over with a single bullet. Infinite’s combat is similar to the previous Bioshock titles in that you have firearms in one hand and powers in another, here called Vigors instead of Plasmids.

Despite the name, they work identically to their predecessors. You can shoot lightning from your fingertips, float enemies helplessly in midair, conjure a magnetic shield, or use a number of other abilities to give you the upper hand in combat. Switching between them is done with the number keys for PC and a radial menu for the consoles. Some Vigors are better than others in certain situations or against certain enemies, but a couple of them seem almost entirely useless or redundant.

Weapon variety is rather vanilla, especially compared to Bioshock 2. You have access to pistols, machine guns, shotguns, and a few heavier weapons like rocket launchers, but ammo type switching from the previous Bioshock titles is mysteriously absent and you can only carry two weapons at once. Weapon ammo is also extremely limited and you’ll likely go through a lot of ammo dealing with some of the heavier-armored enemies, but enemies will drop their weapons and ammo as pick ups to replenish your own supply. Additionally, upgrade stations allow improvement to weapon damage and recoil, a necessity if playing on hard.

Without a doubt, one of the most exciting additions to combat in Infinite are the skylines. Using a ‘skyhook’, a magnetized, hand-mounted gear, Booker is able to latch himself onto the floating transport rails in Columbia to quickly travel from one location to another; this allows him to gain a tactical advantage against grounded enemies, with the ability to shoot while riding on a skyline or even jump from it to perform a devastating melee strike. The exhilarating sense of speed and the sheer ‘cool factor’ of battles involving the skylines quickly became some of my favorite portions of the game.

They allow Booker to reach new sniping platforms, survey enemy locations and supplies, perform hit-and-run attacks, or make quick escapes when baddies start to surround you. It’s a mechanic that, for how fun and unique it is, would normally be relegated to a cheap gimmick or fast-travel system in other games. Infinite uses it as one of the core mechanics in its combat and it pays off in spades.

Elizabeth

Elizabeth also has an important role in combat. She can, at the player’s command, summon in extra ammunition, new platforms, and even machine gun turrets with her time-space altering “tear” ability. She’ll also scavenge the battlefield during your numerous gunfights and throw the player supplies when they’re needed. Don’t be surprised to have Elizabeth call for you to catch a medical kit and save your life just as the last little bit of red is about to be drained from your health bar. Elizabeth is far more than just a passive onlooker to your combat: she becomes an essential commodity, integral to your survival in fights and her useful but simple boosts to your battle effectiveness makes her that much more endearing that she already is.

Graphical fidelity on the PC version of the game isn’t exceptional – this isn’t Crysis or Battlefield – but it does have a laundry list of modern technologies incorporated into its visuals. Infinite is powered by Unreal Engine 3, as are many, many games, but it is perhaps the first game using the engine to actually look like a modern title instead of having the telltale UE3 signs like muddy, slow-loading textures.

The addition of high resolution textures, high quality shadows and lighting, ambient occlusion, adaptive depth of field and a bevy of other DirectX 11-exclusive technologies in the PC version is a testament to Irrational Games’ worthwhile attempts to make Infinite beautiful not just artistically, but technically as well. There are also options for field of view, although it may not be wide enough for some users and can be remedied with a romp into the .ini files. A roundabout fix, but at least the ability is there.

Perhaps the most impressive portion of the PC port is the scalability of the game on multiple hardware configurations. While I have a rather good gaming PC and can run the game at 1920×1080 with nearly everything at its maximum settings, the game can also run well on mid-range machines with an acceptable frame rate while keeping most of the less taxing graphical bells and whistles to a higher setting. It’s worth noting that Infinite does use some of the smoke and mirrors that other games do, most notably lower-quality skyboxes obscured with bloom and blur while looking out into the skies of Columbia and lowering texture detail for faraway surfaces, but the instances of these detracting from the visuals are few and far between.

If I had to find major criticisms for the game, which I must admit is very difficult, it would have to be a few technical glitches that served to immediately destroy my immersion and interrupt gameplay. Scripted sequences failing to load and character models falling through the ground are a couple of issues I experienced, and both of them took me out of what would have otherwise been an amazing moment. The good part is, these happened extremely rarely and there were plenty more of those amazing moments to go around, so I never felt as though one of those issues ruined the entire game.

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The combat and story elements lead you through a campaign that takes increasingly sharper turns to the weird in the final third of the game. It took me about 12 hours to finishing the campaign, and the last few hours of Infinite will demand your attention – not just because you have to pay attention to understand just what the hell is going on, but because you’ll want to find out just how this insane ride ends. Bioshock Infinite’s ending might displease or even anger some players, but it wraps up the story rather nicely, though not entirely airtight. Despite how prepared you may be for the classic Bioshock twist, you’ll never be able to see what’s coming in Infinite until it’s already upon you.

Despite any minor drawbacks or grievances, Bioshock Infinite is an adventure that deserves your attention, your time, and your money. It’s not quite a red-letter day for the medium like the original Bioshock was, but that’s not to say the experience itself isn’t its equal, and it certainly has less technical issues than the previous franchise entries. Infinite is not a perfect game, but for all the games I’ve played over all the years I’ve been playing them, I personally don’t believe that any other title has come quite as close.

9.5/10

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