Computer America: 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.

 

This month, we take one final look at the upcoming launches of the PS4 and Xbox One:their advantages, challenges, exclusive titles, and which product is the best fit for the average consumer. We also recap Blizzcon 2013 and detail some of their bigger announcements, including details on a live-action Warcraft movie due out in 2015. 

 

Click here for hour 1, and click here for hour 2. Hope you enjoy!

 

See you in the next level,

Gray

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On Beyond: Two Souls

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Some of the hardest moments in life come not from what is said, but rather what is not. Everyone can confess to a memory where they think “if I had just said this” or “If I had one more minute to tell them…”, and yet we must struggle onward carrying that one message we believe could have changed everything. The human element to a story is the soul that gives meaning to the entire experience, and it is precisely that in which Beyond: Two Souls wishes to convey. Underneath the complicated and sometimes frustrating story-telling scheme, there is a beautiful, yet tragic tale thriving with emotion and brimming with a desire to share it with the world. Unfortunately, David Cage’s narrative creativity is stretched too far with non-linearity, diluting the emotional impact and, quite simply, making what could have been a fantastic two-hour movie into a 12-hour obstacle course.

Beyond: Two Souls is what the gaming community has started referring to as an ‘interactive drama’, in that Quantic Dream sought to create a video game experience that is profoundly emotional while keeping the player as an active participant. While this was proven difficult to achieve in their prior efforts with Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain, both titles pushed the boundaries of what kinds of stories can and cannot be told through video games. While Beyond does reach new heights in motion-capture performance and emphasizing emotional response, the overall experience is far more dramatic than interactive. 

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Beyond: Two Souls tells the story of Jodie Holmes, a little girl psychically tethered to a supernatural force she calls Aiden. Invisible yet always present, Aiden is the other half of Cage’s opus. Protector and assailant, guardian and schoolyard bully, the story of Beyond unfolds through 15 years of Jodie’s life and how she desperately fights to live a normal life despite being connected to an entity she never fully understands. The story jumps between different chapter of Jodie’s life, sometimes going from young adult to six year-old child. Cage tries desperately to weave a linear tale through non-linear means, thus giving the experience a disjointed and schizophrenic feel to it.  Jodie’s story is also burdened with so many genres that it suffers from an identity crisis of sorts, never fully able to focus on one main element and provide depth. Just when it starts to feel like a horror story, it violently turns into a sci-fi game or an elaborate action sequence. 

Much like Heavy Rain, Beyond is a story told through a new evolution of quick time events, with very little puzzle solving or personal logic required. While the idea was to tell Jodie’s story through the player’s hands, it comes off more as a simple mechanism through which the story is told, rather than being discovered. Even the game’s camera provides blatant clues as to where to go or what to do next, instead of the player figuring it out on their own. While it’s understood that such a mechanic was meant to help the player along, the underlying effect detracts from the ability to immerse the player into the story.

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From a technical perspective, Beyond is beautiful, imaginative and very polished. Quantic Dream spent ample time to ensure that every subtle moment played out just as they wanted to. As a result, there are some moments that are profoundly touching, due in no small part to the motion-capture performances of Ellen Page, Willem Defoe and the rest of the cast. They help infuse sincerity and humanity into the quiet moments and when they are at their darkest, a quality not easily obtained in video game storytelling.

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Playing Jodie and Aiden are two distinct processes, with Aiden being the more interesting option. In the more intense moments, Aiden becomes the natural option to switch to in order to save Jodie or stop whatever obstacle is present. Although Jodie has her share of action, Aiden has the ability to pass through walls, move objects, and even possess people to obey to it’s every whim. Objects and people are given a colored hue that helps the player understand the extent to which they can manipulate their environment, as not everything (or everyone) can be influenced.Yet again, Quantic Dream provides blatant clues as to how Aiden is supposed to help Jodie in certain situations, almost eradicating the need to think about your next move.

Although Jodie is capable of combat, the entire system is simplistic and slow (literally). Almost every encounter ends up being a mixture of button-mashing and right stick maneuvers based on how Jodie is moving. While this sounds simple, reading Jodie’s body language is easily the most confusing part of the game, as it is never explicitly stated if she must move into the combat (such as blocking a punch or kick) or avoid incoming harm (such as rolling or jumping away from something). 

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Jodie’s conclusion is open-ended, as David Cage is wont to do with his stories, but even in this avenue it feels as though the player is cheated in some manner. Throughout the entire game, the player has the opportunity to choose what Jodie does. And while that may convey the idea that the player has some kind of input on what ultimately happens to Jodie, it does not change the outcome of the critical points that tie the story together. On one side, you have the freedom to choose what she wears or what she cooks on a date, both of which can affect the outcome; on the other, you can choose whether or not to save a man’s life as he is dying, but it will not change the final outcome. Even when faced with Jodie’s most important choice of all, the narrative will still end as similarly as possible, with some form of resolution coming to Jodie and those close to her. With a story so mired in the nebula between life and death, there is too much room for ‘gray area’ endings that do not answer every question or give every character hope. After all, in a topic as sensitive and difficult as death, why can’t we live with an ending that leaves us with questions?

I wanted to love Beyond: Two Souls for many reasons, the largest of which being how we are so often left with questions without answers. The interplay between life and death–both emotionally and mentally–is an ever-changing palace filled with questions and no answers. Although Beyond: Two Souls is not a good video game by most standards, it boldly asks questions and postulates futures that few people have the courage to entertain. It is easy to feign ignorance toward impossible riddles, but to attempt an answer toward life’s greatest mystery through a video game is not only bold, but admirable as well.

 

See you in the next level,

Gray

Gamer Tuesday with Computer America

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.

This month, Craig, Charles and I discuss Valve’s announcement of Steam OS, Steam Machine and their new controller, and we talk all about Grand Theft Auto 5. Click here for hour 1, and here for hour 2

See you in the next level,

Gray

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