Computer America Radio Show–Gamer Tuesday

On the second Tuesday of each month, the Computer America Radio Show hosts “Gamer Tuesday” in which Craig and Ben devote the entire show to news and reviews about video games and the video game industry. Invited on as a guest host, I debate the latest topics with them and how they might affect the future of the industry.

In this month’s edition, we dive into E3 and the many announcements and surprises from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo as they each took the main stage. Which camp stole the hearts of gamers across the nation this year? Tune in and find out!

 

Here is the link for hour 1, and Here is the link for hour 2. Hope you enjoy!

 

See you in the next level,

Gray

On Bioshock Infinite

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“Bring us the girl, and wash away the debt.”

We are all guilty of the good we do not accomplish. Our sins, our faults, our mistakes—they are all reminders that we are, in the end, human. To carry such debts, be they mental, spiritual or physical, can be a driving force behind great change. What happens we our beliefs are challenged? Why do some of our grandest intentions often lead to the darkest of ambitions? There are so many questions, so many paths not taken in life that leave us wondering an endless list of what if’s

Bioshock Infinite is not simply a video game. It is a prolific journey into the very fabric of our realities, while also exploring questions of the depth of love, faith, and loss. Beautiful, adaptive, provocative and deeply thoughtful, Infinite is a masterful game that marries brilliant storytelling with near perfect video game design.  While it is difficult enough to create a sequel that exceeds its predecessor, Bioshock Infinite achieves something far more rare—It raises the bar for the future of video games.

Booker Dewitt, a disgraced agent of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, is tasked with finding and delivering a girl named Elizabeth to his employers. Haunted by his sins and plagued by debt, both financial and emotional, Dewitt is a gruff exterior hiding a far more fragile core, one that shuns religion and fumbles to find some way of absolving his sins more substantial than forgiveness. To him, he must pay a penance, and in that vein Infinite is an outward manifestation of Dewitt gaining the courage to choose to face his inner demons.

And yet, this is merely one of the many themes that craft such a poignant tale of survival and redemption. The story of Infinite is woven together by dozens of threads that touch on many religious, philosophical, and social levels. The city of Columbia itself is beautifully constructed, infused with Victorian, post-industrial, and science fiction architectures sprawled across the “landscape”. Underneath its shining surface, however, Columbia is a dystopia struggling to maintain balance and order through political and religious pressures. Its prophetic leader, Zachary Comstock, is a worthy antithesis to Dewitt as his commitment to his faith echoes throughout Columbia and tugs away at Dewitt’s skepticism.

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Throughout its entirety, Bioshock Infinite permeates with uneasy tension that seeks to surprise and disorient the player, narratively and mechanically. Visions of awe and spectacle give way to unusual references to popular literature and songs that shouldn’t exist. Irrational does well to play with the expectations of the player, ensuring that what’s around the corner is never quite certain. Elizabeth herself, seemingly innocent and a victim to imprisonment throughout her life, shows hints of a darker element that prevents you from ever fully trusting her. It is a delicate ballet of hope and fear that makes the relationship between Dewitt and Elizabeth so fascinating to see as they discover deeper truths about each other.

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Much like the original Bioshock, Infinite’s gameplay is very linear and firmly rooted in the shooter genre. That isn’t to say Infinite has its own way of tweaking the mechanics, of which it does in some ingenious ways. Irrational Games went to great lengths to make sure that every aspect of the game worked hand-in-hand with the narrative and the actual gameplay design, and it works brilliantly. The skyrail system used by the police to move about the city opens up the combat arenas, spreading the battle across several sections of the city simultaneously. Vigors, which give Dewitt special abilities very similar to the plasmids used in the original Bioshock, are presented more as parlor prizes meant to dazzle and entertain, but help Dewitt immensely in combat. It explains why the citizens of Columbia do not pay much attention to the vigors and only certain regiments of the police force use them.

Vigors add additional elements to combat by allowing a degree of combination and experimentation to your style of play. Certain vigors can be used as traps lying in wait for enemies to set off, which can help fortify certain positions or prevent enemies from moving into cover. Combining powers can also wreak havoc on entire groups of enemies at once. Using a Murder of Crows trap with Devil’s Kiss, I soon had legions of flaming crows setting several troops ablaze while stunning them at the same time. Such creativity becomes necessary later on in the game as enemies grow in strength and in number.

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The skyhook can also be used as a melee weapon when enemies come a little too close, and it is here where I found my biggest criticism. As a shooter, it is generally understood that Infinite—and almost any game in the FPS genre—is a violent game. When using the skyhook, however, you have the ability to perform animations that I believe are simply too graphic. In a game where so many elements serve a narrative and functional purpose, I can’t seem to find the purpose of taking some of these kill animations to such a violent level.  I struggled to find a reason to excuse how Dewitt would occasionally bore the skyhook into the face of a policeman for several seconds before dropping the mangled corpse and moving on. In regards to how the game handles other violent situations in a mature fashion, it sticks out as a sore thumb, and is an example of how developers must really consider how they choose to portray violence in their game, should they choose to have any.

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Thankfully, melee combat becomes very sparse early on, as new weapons and vigors quickly become available. The pace by which you pick up new weapons might have been too hasty if not for the inclusion of Elizabeth in combat. With the ability to open tears and bring in objects from other realities, Elizabeth can conjure supplies and defenses at your disposal. When coupled with her ability to throw you ammo, health and vigor salts in the heat of battle, Elizabeth becomes a vital companion in combat without ever being a burden. No matter how frantic the firefight may become, you will never have to think about her safety or proximity to Dewitt. Smart and fast, Elizabeth is as helpful and assisting as Alex Vance from Half Life 2.

Inside and outside of combat, Dewitt and Elizabeth form a symbiotic relationship that is tested by both parties. Elizabeth’s innocence toward the racial oppression faced by colored workers and Irish immigrants clashes with Dewitt’s spiraling dismay toward humanity and, most of all, himself. This juxtaposition provides for an avenue by which Irrational Games are able to tell a story that seeks to comment on our own nation’s history. Columbia may be a fantastic site to behold, but the underlying ugliness and inequality amongst the people is very, very real.

The nail-biting conclusion asks lofty questions that are not easily answered, yet remained swimming in my mind for several days after. At its core, however, was a deeply emotional truth that exemplifies how even the smallest of choices can reverberate throughout our lives. Bioshock Infinite may tell a complicated narrative with broad implications on the concept of reality, but it never dilutes or obscure the emotional impact that develops between Dewitt and Elizabeth, and within them. Irrational Games has crafted a deeply moving tale of redemption and forgiveness that is as masterfully told as it is designed and enjoyed as an excellent shooter. Riveting, thoughtful and daring to the very end, Bioshock Infinite is a testament to video game storytelling and is undoubtedly a candidate for Game of the year.

See you in the next level,

Gray

Computer America Radio Show–Gamer Tuesday

Each month, the Computer America national radio show hosts their second Tuesday as “Gamer Tuesday”, for which I am their guest host and official video game correspondent. Over the 2-hour show, we talk about major video game reviews, news, and current trends facing the industry today. This month, we delve into the hardware of the recently announced PS4, and talk about the biggest hits and misses of March.

 

Click Here for hour 1, and click here for hour 2. Enjoy the show!

 

See you in the next level,

Gray

On Dead Space 3…

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Dead Space 3 suffers, among a few other things, from an identity crisis. Amid another squadron of Necromorphs on the freezing (but gorgeous) surface of Tau Volantis, I found myself asking questions not unlike those pondered in the halls of a philosophy building–why are we here, where are we going, what is our ultimate purpose, and so on.

That isn’t to say Dead Space 3 fails at being entertaining or falls short of furthering the mysterious lore of the Markers. Quite the opposite, DS3 is riddled with intense moments of firefights and some great exploratory elements that previous entries were desperately lacking. But at it’s core, Dead Space 3 tries to emulate its horror-born roots while highlighting its more modern action-shooter form, and in doing so it doesn’t quite succeed at either.

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Series protagonist Isaac Clarke returns to us bitter and broken, seemingly exhausted with trying to convince humanity the twisted truth of their fabled Markers. Unfortunately, Isaac is forced back into his trusty RIG suit when his former girlfriend, Ellie, is in a tough spot and sends a team to bring him in and help out. Together and with the help of co-op partner John Carver, they uncover evidence that may lead them to the source of the Markers and to the salvation of all humanity.

Throughout most of the game, Dead Space 3’s greatest weakness is its story. Convoluted and forced with awkward emotional elements, Dead Space 3 never seems to find a good pace to unfold plot points and give them enough explanation. This leads to a lot of errand-running and item-grabbing without much understanding as to why. The final several chapters are very lore-heavy and comes at you rushed and feels a bit sloppy. For those hoping to figure out where these Markers originated, I highly encourage turning on the subtitles so you don’t miss anything, but it still won’t be enough to get real answers.

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Also frustrating is the poorly written love triangle between Isaac, Ellie and her new love interest. From eye-rolling one liners to increasingly ridiculous decision-making, the whole attempt at adding some level of emotional connection between the characters comes off laughable and actually detracts from the rest of the story. With the fate of humanity at stake, you’d think a few adults could put aside petty issues of jealousy and remorse, yet they almost manage to cripple the entire mission because of their feelings. While not out of the realm of possibility, it is very difficult to empathize, let alone believe in any of the characters.

Surprisingly, DS3’s best character is Carver, whom also brings the co-op genre to the table for the first time in Dead Space’s franchise. Overall the co-op portions are well done and provide far more entertainment than surviving Tau Volantis alone. It also where Dead Space 3 hits a genre-splitting fork in the road: Should you go it solo, the elements of horror and isolation are retained and keep you more immersed in the frantic survival experience. Choose to play with a partner controlling Carver, and the general feeling of unease and suspense all but disappear and are replaced with themes closer related to an action shooter. Both paths have their own merits, but given how the Dead Space franchise has already been moving from survival-horror and into the action realm, the co-op option proved more satisfying.

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Peppered throughout the game are optional missions that, while aimed at fleshing out the story, end up being repetitive and bland. The only notable ones were those that delved into Carver’s tragic history and helped give better perspective on Carver’s unwillingness to be vulnerable. The rewards at the end of each aren’t very unique or difficult to attain elsewhere in the game, leaving me relatively disappointed after completing each one.

Thankfully, Dead Space 3 does excel with its combat system and overall presentation. Dismemberment is still the key to surviving the Necromorph onslaught, and Visceral’s overhaul of the weapon system is robust and a lot of fun–once you figure it out. Being able to build and customize your weapons is a detailed and varied process that requires a little time and attention to get the gist of, but once you do the possibilities are endless. Ammunition has also been simplified into a single generic type, meaning you’ll never have to worry about running low on a particular type (or worry about running low at all, because you’ll be overflowing with it). One-handed weapons are obviously faster, but I found more gratification in the heavier and more lethal two-handed weapons.

Dead Space 3 was designed with Visceral’s Godfather engine in mind, and the detail is simply stunning. Floating through the infinite abyss of space littered with debris and corpses of fallen Necrospawn, it is obvious Visceral spent great care in achieving a high level of detail that helped manifest the emotions behind it. The frozen wastelands and claustrophobic hallways on Tau Volantis are rendered beautifully and maintain a constant presence of fear and death long since gone, but never forgotten.

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At the end of the day, Dead Space 3 is another entry in a series overflowing with potential that just hasn’t quite been realized yet. Gorgeous and entertaining on a technical level, yet bland and unimpressive on a personal one, I continue rooting for the series to find it’s place and be able to fully blossom into a frightening and engrossing adventure leading to the truth of the Markers. Dead Space 3 makes great steps toward that goal, even if it fumbles a few things along the way.

See you in the next level,

Gray

Computer America Radio Show: Gamer Tuesday!

Each month, the Computer America national radio show hosts their second Tuesday as “Gamer Tuesday”, for which I am their guest host and official video game correspondent. Over the 2-hour show, we talk about major video game reviews, news, and current trends facing the industry today. This month, we take a look ahead into 2013 and discuss the biggest and most talked-about video games set to debut this year.

Below are the links to the first and second hour of the show, or you can subscribe to their podcast on iTunes for free!

Click here for Hour 1

and Click here for Hour 2

 

See you in the next level,

Gray

Computer America Gamer Tuesday Radio Show

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Each month, the Computer America national radio show hosts their second Tuesday as “Gamer Tuesday”, for which I am their guest host and official video game correspondent. Over the 2-hour show, we talk about major video game reviews, news, and current trends facing the industry today. This month, we dedicated the entire show to the Computer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada and highlight some of the new products that will impact the video game indsutry.

Below are the links to the first and second hour of the show, or you can subscribe to their podcast on iTunes for free!

Hour 1:

Hour 2:

See you in the next level,

Gray

On Paper Mario: Sticker Star…

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Among the growing pantheon of Mario titles, Paper Mario has always been a diamond in the rough of sorts. When viewed throughout his many iterations and forms, this paper-ized persona has come to represent his quirkiest, yet most dynamically unique adventures in many years. With excellent writing and a growing thirst to try new ideas and mechanics not known to the Mario Universe, it comes as no surprise that Paper Mario: Sticker Star by Intelligent Systems maintains its whimsical nature and sense of humor packed with jokes and an unwavering dogma certain to keep you smiling until the end. This is made all the more important, however, by a frustratingly picky battle system and a world progression theme almost perfectly imitating every other Mario game in existence that prevent you from having a truly joyful return to our silent paper comrade. 

The story setup is not unlike any other Mario tale; Princess Peach hosts a celebration in town, and Bowser barges in to ruin the fun and make a run at her. In the chaos, he grabs the fabled Sticker Star and breaks it into 6 pieces that scatter across the realm. Armed with new powers, Bowser runs off with Peach and it’s up to our paper-thin plumber to save her.

As the name suggests, almost everything about this new adventure is about stickers. Most of the RPG elements from previous games are thrown out in favor of the new sticker system, in which Mario must use a sticker to do anything. Whether you’re solving a puzzle, fighting a battle or poking around for secrets (of which there are dozens packed in every single level), everything will require a sticker. No more worrying about experience points, Flower points, leveling up or collecting badges; perhaps the only thing reminiscent of RPG games is Mario’s ability to increase his HP from time to time. Beyond that, your growing collection of stickers will be your primary goal.

The turn-based battle system remains largely unchanged from previous iterations, as you’ll be hopping and hammering your way through throngs of Bowser’s minions. Players can utilize one sticker per turn, but for a few coins a roulette wheel will appear and allow you the chance to use 2 or 3 stickers in a single turn. If you’re up against a number of baddies, the stickers will be used in order with the monsters–the first sticker will target the first monster in line, the second will target the second monster, and so on. It helps add a slight level of strategy for the player to think about, but most group encounters can be ended with a single sticker attacking all enemies, or the battle can just be completely avoided.

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Unfortunately, avoiding battles quickly becomes the norm since you’ll be doing a lot of back tracking throughout the game. Besides regular stickers, you’ll come across larger household objects that can be turned into stickers to be used later on in the game. These objects–dubbed “things”–can be anything from water faucets to electric fans and matches. Most of these objects have a specific function, such as solving a puzzle to continue through a level, or are the main weakness for a future boss fight. Which function they serve, however, is seldom explained or even hinted at until it’s either too late or you simply haven’t used the sticker yet.

This is ultimately where every player will inevitably get stuck sooner or later. If you reach a certain obstacle and lack the necessary Thing to progress, you are forced to back track until you find whatever it is you missed. You’re given very little go on most of the time, meaning it can be hours of exploring old levels before you come across the right sticker for the job. Even worse is the fact that some stickers can’t be used the way logic would imply they could be used. At one point, I was in possession of a Goat sticker and had absolutely no clue how to continue. I was forced to consult a walkthrough in order to continue and It’s a disappointment to think that most players will probably have to do the same. 

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And it doesn’t stop with puzzles either. While regular fights are quick and simple, the boss fights are quite the opposite. Armed with vast amounts of HP and higher defense, some bosses simply cannot be defeated on stickers alone. Each boss has a weakness to a specific Thing that, when used in battle, will do enormous amounts of damage and even the odds. If you don’t know which sticker to use, losing the fight is almost a certainty. Oddly enough, the game will give you a hint as to which sticker you need during the second round with the boss, which doesn’t exactly do much good if you don’t have it. Ultimately, most boss fights will need three attempts before you’ll know how to conquer them. Why the developers felt the need to add this kind of ‘puzzle’ element to the battle system is beyond me, as it does nothing to add to the entertainment of fighting huge battles, and instead just increases the time and frustration you’ll experience before beating them. 

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Sticker Star may not have gotten the puzzle schemes or the battle systems right, but there is still plenty to enjoy in this handheld adventure. The 3D works very well with Paper Mario’s 2D environment, taking every opportunity to show the full breadth of each level and seamlessly transfer between a side-scrolling 2D look into a 3D landscape. The writing and dialogue is still top-notch and every bit as funny as previous installments, poking fun at the whole paper concept and bursting with a type of zeal that compel the player to keep going when they get stuck. Charming and lighthearted until the end, Paper Mario: Sticker Star is a flawed yet fun adventure that will be known for its humor as much as its problems.

See you in the next level,

Gray