(Originally posted at SpawnFirst.com.)

This is how I imagine the planning session for Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag went: Ubisoft brings in some branding guru, who says to them, “Hey, guys, you know what you need?   A pirate game.”

And the Ubisoft designers look around the table at each other, and one of them finally speaks up. “Hey, sure, cool– except we’re kind of working on this Assassin’s Creed thing right now, and–“

“Great, fabulous,” says the branding guru. “Just go ahead and make that into a pirate game.  And if you could somehow get rid of all of the present-day stuff you did in the last games, that’d be great. Let’s tone down the Assassin’s Creed part of it and really ramp up the pirate thing. People love pirates.”

Story

You begin inside the Animus as Edward Kenway (the grandfather of Ratonhnhaké:ton from AC3), privateer/pirate-at-large, resident heartthrob and ne’er do-well, who ends up washed up on an island shore, chasing an assassin because … well, because Kenway’s a pirate, after all. Kenway kills the (not very good) assassin and takes his hood, and the game kicks off.  (“See, here’s what you do,” says the branding guru. “He can be wearing the costume– but he’s a pirate.  Perfect, right?”) As Kenway, your role is to travel between three primary cities, Havana, Nassau, and Kingston, and interact with various historical pirates, most notably Blackbeard, in some sort of vague, nonsensical search with the Templars for a man called the Sage and something called the Conservatory. The Conservatory, in true Bond-villain style, will enable the Templars to see everything that every world leader is doing. It’s hard to understand what Kenway’s true motivation is here, beyond some generic cut scenes regarding a woman who might be his wife and a hateful father-in-law and a desire to have money, because, again, he’s a pirate.

Out in the real world, you’re a nameless faceless new employee of Abstergo Entertainment whose job it is to sift through Desmond Miles’ memories in search of future material for an Animus-powered film. There’s a sinister(ish) ulterior motive here, but you’ll have to find it yourself.

Gameplay

The mechanics are virtually unchanged from the previous games, but that’s fine, because Ubisoft doesn’t need to mess with a pretty good thing. Most of it involves walking, hiding, diving into hay, and quietly pursuing people while using your eagle eye vision. You hide in the high brush, you whistle, you gut a guy, you drag his body away. It’s mostly a stealth game, like its predecessors, and if you’re not a fan of stealth (or, like me, just bad at it), it’s going to be a bumpy ride. If you’re also like me and you want to break away from long West Wing-style walking-and-talking sessions and get on with your bad parkour self, it’s also going to be a very long game. The parkour is occasionally clunky, but maybe that’s just because I kept falling off of things.

A large part of Black Flag has to do with the business of being a pirate– that is, attacking Spanish-flagged ships for their rum or other supplies, hunting animals to create better weapons and gear, navigating your ship through rough waters, and running after music sheets that will provide your crew with new shanties to sing. Black Flag is, at its best, a pretty good pirate RPG(ish). It seems to exist on the premise that everyone wants to be a pirate, and it may be right.  For what it’s worth, all of the various pirate-type activities are pretty entertaining– thereby fulfilling that whole people-love-pirates theme I’m sensing.

Graphics and Sound

Black Flag sure is pretty, but it takes place in the Caribbean, and it’d be super depressing if it weren’t. In the moments where Black Flag recalls its predecessors the most– in the long climbs to the tops of churches and masts to get an eagle eye view and dive into the hay bales below you– is where the game is at its prettiest. Those crystal clear blue waters are enough to make you want to put up your feet, and, well, become a pirate. The sea is beautiful, the changes in weather gorgeous, and if you don’t want to visit the Bahamas after you play this game, then you need a better TV or computer.

The voice acting’s all fine, in a sort of standard yar pirate kind of way, and almost everyone, including the ugliest characters, look like they belong out of central casting for a pirate movie, or at the very least a romance novel of a pirate movie. It’s a game you look at for the scenery, and in that respect, it succeeds. The music is also thematically appropriate, and the sea shanties are easily my favorite part of the entire game: nothing inspires you to be a pirate more than your whole crew singing to bolster you up.

Issues

So, you know what? Black Flag is pretty fun. Being a pirate is, in fact, pretty fun. (Yeah, yeah, branding guru.) It’s also occasionally boring. I personally found it difficult to go back to my game when in the middle of a sea battle trying to control a ship that handles like a drunk rhino (credit to BioWare for that line). That said, for every one of me, there are probably a hundred people who absolutely adored the sea combat. It’s certainly a sight to behold as your crew shouts various piratey things while hurling themselves across the water to a burning ship. And there’s something really beautiful at lowering your sails and taking off towards the sunset, the spray in your face. Yes, branding guru, you’re making me love being a pirate.

There are a lot of cut scenes, too, most of them not unwieldy, but it does sometimes feel like a game where you run and walk and hide just to get to the next dramatic (or undramatic) story moment. The problem of motivation I mentioned above mostly just means you have to accept the fact that you’re running around doing things simply because someone’s told you to– or, because, thinner still, you’ve been told by Kenway himself that it’s time to get some money.

And this may be a niggling comment, but Ubisoft seems to have listened to my imaginary branding guru, because the game kicks off with you as Kenway, before you even go into the Animus. Why? Who knows. Probably because people love being pirates. (I told you so, says my branding guru.) You’re given roughly four minutes of some vague bookending where you are told, inanely, that you are now going to be running through Desmond’s memories for research, and then into the Animus you go. You can leave the Animus at any time, but there’s no point for the vast majority of the game, except that you can wander around the office while no one acknowledges you, have conversations with no one, look at some artwork on the walls, and then go back into the Animus. It’s an artifice that mostly seems to exist to remind you, vaguely, that this is an Assassin’s Creed game– in mechanics, if not completely in spirit. This is probably a significant win for people who felt like all that Desmond stuff was silly anyway (and they probably wouldn’t be wrong, though I miss him already). The game occasionally remembers where it came from and harkens back to that, and the only real problem with this is that it distracts from what the game really is: a fine pirate game indeed. RIP, Desmond.

This all goes down to what really is the bottom line: don’t play Assassin’s CreedBlack Flag because you love Assassin’s Creed. Play it because you love being a pirate.

Multiplayer

Not out yet, but look for it soon. Ubisoft has already released several details of the multiplayer, which has always served the previous single player-focused games well, and it looks like you’ll be able to change weather conditions and various other perks– but no sea battles. Yet. It sure does look cool, though.

Notable Extras

I feel like most of the game is extras, in some weird way. The best parts of it are when you wander away from the story quests, which are mostly just nonsense anyway, and you run around a deserted island or interfere in the affairs of strangers.

SpawnFirst Recommends …

Okay, geez. Being a pirate is a lot of fun. There are places in Black Flag that may feel a little like the video game equivalent of white noise, but everyone loves pirates, so put your feet up, look out at the coast from the bridge of your Jackdaw, and embrace your inner pirate tendencies.

Holy. Crap.

Grand Theft Auto V is, in a word, awesome. It’s hard to find a game that so seamlessly combines gameplay and story in a way that isn’t just rewarding– it’s impossibly fun. The characters are funny, the missions and side missions contain so much variety that you’ll think 10 different game studios came together and offered up their ideas for gameplay and Rockstar said, “Sure, let’s do … all of that.” Yeah, it’s violent, yes, it’s about not very nice people doing not very nice things. But we all knew that when we picked up GTA V. I think we also all knew this would be a Game of the Year candidate– and Rockstar hasn’t let us down.

Story/Concept

It all begins with a bank heist gone terribly wrong, which ends in the alleged death of one of the robbers, Michael. You’re then transported to Los Santos, where Michael is undergoing therapy for having an idiot son. As he goes down to the beautiful beach from his therapy sessions, the game seamlessly shifts to Franklin and his friend Lamar, who ask Michael for directions to the place where they’re about to “lawfully” repossess some cars. The story shifts into higher gear when Franklin is asked by his Armenian car dealer boss to repo a car bought by Michael’s dopey teenage son, which ends in Michael forcing Franklin to drive a car through the shop’s window. When Michael makes a big mistake and pisses off a local crime lord, he needs money– and fast– to pay off that debt. When the heist to pay off that debt is successful, and the details of his crime, if not the identity of the criminal, air on the news, an old friends realizes Michael isn’t as dead as he’s been pretending to be.

Gameplay

There are three playable characters: Michael, the infamous ex-bank robber under F … iB witness protection; Franklin, a repo man working for an Armenian fraud; and Trevor, Michael’s old colleague who’s now running a meth business and thought Michael was dead. The three player characters also have special abilities, but it took this reviewer a while to figure out what those abilities even were: Michael can slow down time in a gunfight, Franklin can slow down time while driving, and Trevor can adrenaline-up and deal extra damage and take less. Each character also has 8 stats that can be improved throughout the game by various activities, strength by fist-fighting, stamina by running, etc. The 8 stats are special, stamina, strength, shooting, flying, driving, lung capacity, and stealth. I barely paid attention to these during my playthrough, so it’s hard to gauge how important they might be.

GTA V, like its predecessors, is a game about driving– not about the mechanics of it, like a racing game, though that’s a large component– but about the very act of driving being essential to moving the story forward. You can, as always, steal practically any car, upgrade them, crash them. Stars in the corner represent your level of being wanted by the cops– if you jack a car or, for whatever reason, get kicked out of a strip club and then beat up some bouncers, they will follow you until you disappear from their literal radars. As a departure from earlier editions, there’s a new weapon wheel to store all of your weapons, which stay with you even through death. The combat is what it is, but the aiming system is fully customizable, which means that if you’d rather focus on your driving, the game will give you a serious aim assist.

GTA V is also awesomely varied. For anyone who’s ever, well, played a game before, this is remarkably refreshing.  When one portion of a mission requires you to run in and shoot a whole bunch of people, you might expect the next portion to be a variant of the same routine: run (or drive), kill, run, kill, run, kill, talk. But GTA V defies those expectations. One such mission involves a bike ride down a boardwalk, a quick swim to a yacht, and then jet skis through tunnels, all within moments of each other. Another involves putting on some hipster gear and infiltrating a self-referential tech studio (which will be so uncanny to anyone who’s ever been in a game studio or a Google-type office). It’s this varied gameplay that makes GTA V awesomely fun and totally replayable.

Where other games in GTA’s general peer group often devolve to combat or racing to propel the plot forward, GTA V says, Screw it, let’s pull a house off a bluff with our car now.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the heists. If you aren’t sold wandering around Los Santos, play until your first heist. You pick your crew, your tactic of approach (usually stealth vs. combat), and then you gather your team, your materials, and you go for it. There’s a breathy feeling of excitement when it goes off more or less without a hitch, though there’s always a hitch.

A hundred little sidequests can also fill up your time, some character-specific and some more broadly available. “Strangers and Freaks” are represented by question marks on the map, and these can change from day-to-day, which again goes to GTA V‘s replayability. You might be tempted to go back to your house and get to sleep, just to see what new things are available the next day. You can go shopping, play golf, spend some time in a private booth at a strip club, help a friend tow a car, rummage through celebrity trash, and, of course, steal cars. In the true spirit of GTA V‘s open world, you could go a very long time without doing anything even resembling a main mission.

Graphics & Sound

Los Santos is pretty unabashedly modeled after Los Angeles, and it evokes LA’s equal parts glamor and awfulness (no offense, LA). It reads a little futuristic, a little grimy, and it’s a place where anything bad can happen at any time. It’s the worst of all cities, and it knows it. The characters look great, the music is awesome, as always, and there’s nothing quite like driving around in the rain or seeing the sunset the water in Los Santos. Everything is lovingly, realistically rendered– you could spend a while just sitting in your plane over Sandy Shores, watching the horizon.

Issues

The only issue, and it’s not really much of one, is that the three player-characters feel uneven. This becomes a problem when choosing which character to play as– and when the game forces you to play as one or the other. It was discouraging to be taken away from playing Michael at a high point in that story to play the diametrically opposed Trevor and his methamphetamine lab. When trying, in vain, to switch back to Franklin and Michael, I was reminded that they were laying low after a big heist, which left me with the manic and unlikeable Trevor and his meth wars saga. It was never not fun to play Trevor, but it was occasionally less compelling.

Another minor problem is that often the prompts telling you how to use a special ability or which buttons do which magical thing come up while you’re doing something else, largely driving. Another slightly frustrating thing is that, if you quit the game and come back, you’ll occasionally find yourself on some bizarre place on a map– I drove over several deer in Sandy Shores, just trying to get back to where my mission prompts were. These issues are negligible and are probably unnoticeable to most people. Generally? Very little can detract from the awesomeness of this game.

Notable Extras

The Rockstar Games Social Club is available too, which collects player data– to include a playable stock market in-game. Called BAWSAQ, it’s governed by global player behavior, so if everyone starts crashing a particular brand of car, you can expect that car’s stock to go down. You can use the Snapmatic and take pictures of yourself, your upgraded car, your cool tattoos, or whatever. Grand Theft Auto Online, a separate game enabling multiplayer, will also launch via your retail copy on 1 October.

SpawnFirst Recommends:

Editors choice

There’s no reason to still be reading this. Run, don’t walk to go get this game now. Say goodbye to your friends, invest in enough water and toilet paper to last you a while. You won’t want to leave your house, unless it’s to go jack a car in Los Santos.

Michael would agree.

(Originally published on SpawnFirst.com.)

Telltale Games did something incredibly right when they put together last year’s The Walking Dead. It probably could have been a disaster: an existing and hugely popular intellectual property (though Telltale has often shown themselves deft with other people’s IPs), a narrative-driven rather than action-driven zombie game, and an 8-year-old for a main character.

So why did it work? There are a lot of reasons– the well-rounded characters, the interesting dialogue, the fact that everyone loves zombies (that is actually a fact). But I think an argument can be made that the success of TWD lies in the gameplay experience itself, one constructed with binary choice after binary choice, all within time constraints that create a tense, fast-paced game where the quieter moments are much-needed respite.

Towards the end of Episode 4, Telltale presents you with a gut-wrenching choice: whether or not to save a particularly troubling character from a gruesome death (and he deserves death, trust me), as far as zombie apocalypse deaths go. As with everything in the TWD series, decisions are mostly confined to knee-jerk reactions: the timer runs out, and you’re forced into them, as you would be in real life. This makes everything feel immediate and visceral, and character deaths are therefore even more difficult to stomach. As you debate the life and death of this character, another one of the ragtag group of survivors joins you and gives you a look. Originally, this character was Clementine– which significantly impacted whether the character in your hands lived or died. Unsurprisingly, nobody wanted to kill someone in front of the kid. “You can’t be cavalier about [the power of Clementine in the scene], otherwise you guys will totally stop trusting us and see right through us,” Telltale lead writer Sean Vanaman says.

TWD goes one step further in the land of choice: at the end of every episode, a summary of players’ choices is shown, and you can see, in clear, stark numbers, which side of the line you fell on with major choices. It’s an interesting and powerful tool: what did you choose, why did you choose it, and what did everyone else choose? It’s this simple statistical element that shows you with brute force that the decisions you make in the heat of the moment are often yours and yours alone. And they’re never easy– nor should they be, in a zombie apocalypse.

It’s hard not to wish you’d been given this ball to throw at the end of Mass Effect 3.

Another complex chapter in game choice is Irrational Games’ BioShock, generally lauded for being one of the best stories in games (it won the BAFTA for best game in 2007)– but not the best game for choice. The best discussion of this is Clint Hocking’s 2007 blog post, “Ludonarrative Dissonance in BioShock“, the post that coined the term ludonarrative dissonance, which is probably a phrase best left inside the gaming world  In essence, Hocking argues that the two contracts of the game, the ludic one and the narrative one, are in direct contrast to each other: you have to help Atlas to move forward in the story of the game, but this contradicts the Ayn Randian idea that you only succeed by helping yourself. (As an example of this, you’re given plenty of opportunities to save the haunting Little Sisters or harvest them for much-needed ADAM. There is no true incentive to harvest the Little Sisters– abstinence from the activity results in rewards later. The idea of choice in BioShock is proven to be nothing but.)

Games like BioShock, and its elegant successor BioShock Infinite, are narratively about choice without being mechanically supported by it. To the end, this is what the BioShock world is about. BioShock Infinite removed the pressure of existing in this Randian environment and instead encouraged choices, small though they were, that were informed by personal beliefs, rather than a game-dictated one. These choices ultimately don’t matter, except in the slightest ways (provision of gear, etc.), but that’s what BioShock is about: illusion of choice. Any contract the games make with the player are broken, slowly and deliberately. BioShock is the anti-choice game.

BioShock 2, developed and produced by 2K, rather than Irrational, diverges from this model to instead embrace a much more choice-driven game, though these choices are primarily reflected in a variety of game endings. While BioShock 2 is perfectly playable, it is this change in theme that makes it a different kind of game altogether.

Heavy Rain.

A discussion of choice in games would be lacking without bringing Quantic Dream into the fold. Heavy Rain is a game drowning in choices, from the most negligible (to let your kid watch TV or make him do his homework) to the more significant (life or death decisions). Main characters can die, forcing the narrative into different avenues, depending on the individual death. There are eight potential endings, far more than the 3ish that Mass Effect 3 lays claim to. One of the unique narrative challenges to Heavy Rain is that (spoiler alert), at one point in the game, you take control of the killer without knowing that you are the killer. This feels disingenuous– a little like a broken promise to the player– and in fact removes player agency. The struggle here of course is the one between the mechanics and the narrative of the game; how does Quantic Dream retain the mystery of their game while still giving their players agency? It’s a question for future games– and one that we couldn’t discuss without Heavy Rain creating it.

And it raises a broader question: how do we keep story while retaining the fun of playing a game? As Tom Bissell says, “Stories are about time passing and narrative progression. Games are about challenge, which frustrates the passing of time and impedes narrative progression. The story force wants to go forward and the “friction force” of challenge tries to hold story back. This is the conflict at the heart of the narrative game, one that game designers have thus far imperfectly addressed by making story the reward of a successfully met challenge. According to [Jonathan] Blow [the creator of Braid], this method is “unsound”, because story and challenge “have a structural conflict that’s so deeply ingrained, it’s impossible” to make game stories strong. Can better writing solve this? In Blow’s mind, it cannot. The nature of the medium itself “prevents stories from being good.” This problem is only exacerbated by choice in games: how do you retain the gameness of a game while embracing a story based on choice?

Mass Effect 3.

Another interesting chapter in the evolution of choice in games is BioWare’s Mass Effect trilogy, a game so predicated on choice that it enraged legions of fans when its final entry closed out with a whimper, not a bang. One fan was so angry about the perceived departure from promises made by the studio all along that he filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. The problem was this: BioWare billed its game as being in the hands of the player but then wrenched it away in the final moments with an ending that I’m now an apologist for, which is an article for another day, but that most people still revile. Players called for a rewrite of the ending, wanting one that embraced the hours upon hours of choices they’d made, the worlds crafted through those hours of choices, and the Commander Shepard who was a result of those choices: battle hardened, wiser, sadder, whatever he or she may have been.

The outrage speaks to something different than so-called false advertising: it speaks to our longing to have ownership over games, to feel like we can effect change in the game world. Sure, we know that a game has to end how it has to end, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t want to feel good about the way it ends. I don’t want to admit how many hours I’ve spent in total on Mass Effect, but a playthrough of all three games might take you 60 hours– more time than you might spend with certain friends or family members in a year. The anguish we felt (and indeed, I seriously considered rescinding a fan letter I’d written to BioWare days before finishing ME3) came from wanting to validate those choices, the ones that cost us friends, the ones that would win or lose us a war. What had we fought for so long and so hard for if, in the end, our choice came down to one of 3 colors?

The appeal of ME isn’t the often-clunky combat or the mini games: it lies in its customizability, from the gender and appearance of Commander Shepard to the romantic relationships he or she engages in and finally to the broader narrative beats– genocide, murder, death.  Life.  A discussion between ME devotees demonstrates the differences in gameplay experiences: shortly after my first or second run at ME3, a friend referenced a moment in which he’d been forced to murder a companion character who’d been present in all three games because of an earlier decision to murder another companion character. These were moments I’d never seen– and ones I’d have to go back and make different choices in order to experience. This is the power of choice in games.

Mass Effect 3’s Citadel DLC.

BioWare’s excellent coda to Mass Effect 3, their “Citadel” DLC, demonstrates the results of our in-game choices in very clear ways: after a massive battle (though not the final one), your Commander Shepard retires to an apartment on the Citadel, where you can throw a party of your own design. You can control the invitations and the mood of the party, and as you wander around the apartment, watching the characters you’ve spent hours with as they bounce off each other like pool balls, you see the world you’ve made in action. Dead characters stay dead. Old lovers reminisce. Everyone has a beer. If anything, “Citadel” is what makes the Mass Effect series replayable until it’s mechanically impossible to do so: the potential differences from playthrough to playthrough seem never-ending. This was what we wanted for our Mass Effects.

BioShock Infinite.

So the question is this: where do we go from here? It’s hard to avoid the sense that the only place to go from here is outward: to expansive games with more choice– and if this is on the horizon, I think we can all afford a little excitement about it. The alternative is the equally enjoyable linear play through of games like Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us and the Uncharted trilogy. There’s no illusion of choice, no expectation for it, but the narrative is excellent, the characters are strong, the dialogue great. These games will always have their place at the forefront of the industry, but the games discussed above offer a glimpse into the future for the potential that games have, the ability for games to give the players agency in ways we never have before. Choice in games requires an investment, both on the part of the studio and the player. It requires a commitment to the idea that a lot of the hard work the village of devs and designers will do on any given game might never be seen.

And maybe in some way it means a validation and elevation of writing in games– and the role of writers themselves–because the challenge of choice in games is ultimately a storytelling one. If we look at these games the way we look at a choose-your-own-adventure novel, we’d be looking at thousands and thousands of pages of story nook-and-crannies.  According to Tom Bissell in his great book Extra Lives, the original Mass Effect script had 300,000 words. (By comparison, Moby Dick logs in at 224,000, and those are all ones you’re actually supposed to read.) This is stunning when you consider that a lot of those words become recorded voice– many of which might never be heard by any players but the most devoted completionists. We can see why it might not be an easy undertaking.

But it’s one with significant reward. The promise and power of meaningful choice in games is summed up best like this:  In an interview with Peter Molyneux, Vanaman says that after a play test that an 11 year old did, the kid was asked to say who his favorite character was. “Lee,” the kid wrote, “because he makes all the best choices.” And he’s right: the best choices in games are the ones we get to make ourselves.

(Originally posted on SpawnFirst.com.)

It’s probably easier to start by describing what Burial at Sea is, rather than what it does for the BioShock legend: it is, quite simply, BioShock in the first, recast with Elizabeth and Booker Dewitt. BaS doesn’t really make good on commitments early previews seemed to make, and some will be put off by the short play time (two hours at absolute most) in proportion to the cost, but for fans of the series, it’s a vignette worth experiencing.

You begin as Booker, half-asleep at your desk in your Philip Marlowe-style office, when a striking young woman comes through your door, looking for a light. She tells you you can call her Elizabeth, and she’s looking for a young girl named Sally. If you look at the calendar on your desk, you’ll see the date: 31 December 1958. The premise doesn’t get much simpler than this: your sole goal is to rescue this girl, whatever it takes. When you find out that she’s been relegated to Fontain’s department store, you go after her– deep into the ocean.

Gameplay

The mechanics don’t differ at all from BioShock Infinite, some retrofitted (futurefitted?) into Rapture. “Air grabber,” Booker says, picking up the skyhook. Fans of Infinite won’t feel any pain in the transition between the two games; even all of the plasmids are the same, except with the addition of Old Man Winter, which functions almost like Winter Blast but apparently has a very different origin. Weapons are all the same too, and early scenes when you’re equipped with only a hand cannon (Marlowe-style!) quickly disappear into carbine and tommy gun-inflated combat scenarios.

“Constants and variables.”

The enemies are almost exclusively variations on the same old splicers from BioShock, with the exception of the appearance of an old friend, and nothing in the gameplay will feel new. You can bring things through the tear, with the help of Elizabeth, though that can feel slightly silly when, for instance, you have her bring through a samurai shortly after she’s trying to haltingly explain the origin of her tear ability. (Though, let’s be honest, if I could have brought forth samurai in Infinite, I’d have done it constantly.) Elizabeth is also still there to offer up suppliers, though I found her to be in my way far more than she was ever in my way in Infinite proper. The dialogue feels recycled, perhaps purposefully so, and there’s something oddly reassuring and quietly discomforting when Elizabeth agrees to open a locked door for you.

At least it’s not a bucket.

Graphics & Sound

The game looks, in BioShock form, beautiful. Rapture is as gorgeous as it ever was, and the early scenes of a pre-fall Rapture are glorious. Elizabeth may be one of the most beautiful female characters ever in games, and an early scene where Booker dances with her while gazing in her eyes while the creepy patrons of Cohen’s club stand eerily behind her is gorgeous. The descent into Rapture, the lights from the buildings reflecting through the sea, will be a genuinely stunning moment when compared with the memory of post-fall Rapture.

The best moments sound-wise come in the early scenes in the pre-fall Rapture, when people chat and exchange ideas over cigarettes and drinks. It’s hard to not want to stop and listen to those snatches of conversation, joining in like you belong there– like you, as Booker, are part of this community. The music recalls both Rapture and Columbia, and all of it’s great (though nothing matches the “God Only Knows” barbershop quartet of Infinite’s early scenes).

Issues

There are some problems, but they’re of the esoteric variety: the promises of a pre-Rapture game fall short because you’re so quickly whisked into Fontaine’s world, splicers and all. You will want to spend more time in Rapture, but short of stalling the major story elements, that’s not an option. It has the momentary feel in places of being a piece of fan fiction, like someone said, “Well, what if we put Elizabeth and Booker … in Rapture?” BaS gives in to its baser BioShocky elements after the first act, and the noirish elements disappear in favor of the first-person survival horror shooter that was the first BioShock. Except for the presence of Elizabeth, reassuringly tossing EVE and medkits at you, and the Infinite-style plasmids, you might as well be right back in BioShock the first.

This is probably where the game disappoints the most, because those of us looking for a Chandler-style noir romp get about 15 minutes of it. The first major mission involves searching for an invitation to Cohen’s party by rummaging through various neighboring shops as Elizabeth distracts the owners, femme fatale-style. It will feel strange for a BioShock game but absolutely right for whatever weird thing BaS purports to be. That this is the only moment of this relative weirdness feels disingenuous, like a strange half-attempt at trying something unexpected and new, before revering to the world of BioShock that we all know and, admittedly, love.

One of Burial at Sea’s finest moments.

Maybe I’m alone in this, but Infinite has decided moments of unbearable lightness; it seems unfair to steal Burial at Sea’s unimpeachable darkness from another game, even if that game is its predecessor. Get your own darkness, find your own tone, I almost wanted to say to it. 

That said, I’ll be the first to say that this is kind of nitpicky. Rapture has enough of its tone for plenty more games. Elizabeth and Booker can wade in that for a little while.

When I got about halfway through, I thought that I would write here that it’s an issue if you haven’t played the first BioShock game, but I take it all back (even before I’ve said it). There might be some merit to playing BaS if you’ve never touched the first game or the second; Rapture is a very, very different place than Columbia, and though some of the off-hand references might mean less to you, including Cohen’s appearance, the discovery of Rapture might feel like something bigger.

Those moments of descent, of blissfully watching a strange creature swimming outside of a diner window, might seem very different if Rapture is never a place you’ve been to before. If it is, this may feel more like fan service than it does anything else.

And, well, okay. Let’s talk about how long the game is. Ken Levine recently defended the length of the DLC, noting that “We chose quality over quantity.” It’s an hour worth of game that you can stretch out to two if you want to wander around unlocking things and looking for, uh, voxophones or audio logs or whatever you want to call them. The issue is not the price point (though if you do the math, $7.50 for an hour of game seems like a lot). It will feel like a level of the original BioShock, but a really good one.

The ending also feels muddy, a strange data and visual dump meant to make sense of– and perhaps give purpose to– the previous two hours. I’m going to put my faith in Ken Levine and company and say that this is a grand set up for part two of the DLC.

Notable Extras

The Season Pass in general comes with some extras, but whatever is inherent to Burial at Sea is opaque to me. Clash in the Clouds still wins with its Columbia-style musical covers.

SpawnFirst Recommends …

Buy

For fans of Infinite, it’s worth the price. There’s something jarring and also reassuring about Elizabeth unlocking a door for you or tossing EVE– salts?– your way. But if you weren’t sold on Infinite, you won’t be sold on Burial at Sea. It’s a letter to fans of both fames, Infinite and the original BioShock, and while fans might be left wanting more, there’s something poetic to the idea that both Rapture and Burial at Seam make grand promises. As a side note: get the season pass for $19.99 rather than buying the pieces individually. Burial‘s price tag relative to its play time won’t seem so bad if you’re getting 2 other DLCs with it.

(Originally published at SpawnFirst.com on 27 December 2013.)

Waking the Dead

Telltale Games returns with season 2 of the superlative The Walking Dead game, shaking its choice-based moneymaker for all that it’s worth. It’s an emotional, occasionally scary, occasionally slow entry in what will likely be an exciting season.

Story

You begin the story as Clementine, the young girl The Walking Dead Season 1’s player-character Lee found and then sought to protect as best he could throughout the course of the season. She’s a little older (though barely), a little tougher, perhaps a little wiser, and she’s joined up with Omid and a very pregnant Christa (all that speculation apparently dead-on), but for various reasons she finds herself alone in the woods, looking for food, shelter, and the general accoutrements of the zombie apocalypse. It’s best to avoid any spoilers at all for a game like this, but as you can imagine, she soon finds other people, trouble, and walkers.

It carries on the themes from the first season (and its namesake, Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels): people are sort of awful, though occasionally kind, and that they are the true threat in a zombie apocalypse, not the zombies themselves.

If you’re looking for return characters from Season 1, it’s probably best to remind yourself that most of them are dead (spoiler alert?)– this story is now Clementine’s.

The game can be started from a previous save file, whether you’ve played through TWD Season 1 and/or the 400 Days DLC. If not, the game warns you, it will randomly choose for you.  I’ll be honest, I meant to replay Season 1 before I began Season 2 and never got to it, but the game will helpfully review your major choices for you in a dramatic PREVIOUSLY ON cutscene– at least the ones that seem to immediately impact your particular play through.

Gameplay

At its heart, The Walking Dead is an interactive story, which is not to be confused with not being a game. It retains the elements of Telltale’s LucasArts background– the gathering of items to occasionally combine them, but it’s mostly about the way people communicate with each other, the silences in conversations, and the things people do and do not say. TTG games are also about choice, and the familiar text box in the top corner stays the same, though it’s still often hard to tell what will have resonance and what won’t, and even a subtle, “She’ll remember that,” in the corner might mean very little game-wise except to taunt your conscience. TTG has made very few changes to the gameplay of the first season, with a few notable examples: in some combat sequences there’s now a massive red arrow to prompt you to move quickly in one direction or another (Quantic Dream-style). It’s slightly exhilarating and not an unwelcome change to the first game. The occasional quicktime events are there too, but except for moments when you’re like me and the E-key is suddenly elusive, none of these are distracting or even all that notable. The map is a little clunky in terms of moving around (like you’ll want to know why that particular patch of grass is so box-shaped and why you can’t angle your way around it), but nobody’s coming to this game for parkour.

Graphics & Sound

It looks great and it sounds great, and it’s really the superb voice acting that makes Telltale’s dialogue sing. Melissa Hutchison returns as Clementine, and she’s suitably older and harder-sounding. (As a side note, she’s also an incredibly awesome person, so if you see (stalk?) her like I might have done at Dragon Con 2013, try to stop and say hi to her.) The rest of the cast is great too and goes a long way in selling the fact that while people in a zombie apocalypse might be awful, they’re still people. The graphics echo the ones in Kirkman’s graphic novels, but the game seems to draw inspiration from those rather than using them as a guide.

Issues

So, look, it’s hard for me to find fault with a TellTale game. If anything, and this is nitpicky, it’s that the transition from Lee to Clementine as a player character doesn’t feel completely organic. If you played the first season, you’re trained, conditioned, to protect Clementine from the things around her, so transitioning to making her decisions for her can feel at times a little forced. Her dialogue occasionally waivers between stoic and bratty, neither of which carry the same emotional resonance as they did when an 8-year-old looks up at you, a convicted killer, and offers you her trust. That said, the weaknesses in “All That Remains” are only evident when compared to the episodes that preceded it. TTG’s writing is, as always, superlative, and it’s likely not wishful thinking that Season 2 will reach the emotional crescendo its predecessor did. It took the TV show all freaking season 2 to figure out where Sophia was, didn’t it?

A friend of mine texted me the night this came out and said, “I’m really worried about the dog,” and to some degree I wasn’t. I knew what was going to happen to the dog, and you will too– because it’s that kind of a game, and TTG wants to pull all of those heartstrings in the right and wrong places. It will feel occasionally obvious, but don’t worry, there’s probably something worse around the next corner.

It also relies incredibly heavily on some of the goodwill the first season bought; the emotional resonance of very early scenes depended upon caring about a couple of characters from the previous season. I, for one, was devastated when the kind of thing that happens in a zombie apocalypse happens (people die), but my cynical dog-minded friend up there couldn’t have cared less. It also really relies on your willingness and desire to take Clementine into your own hands, literally. You’re probably okay if you haven’t played season 1, but it’s probably a little like coming into season 2 of a tense dramatic TV show– there are simply going to be emotional beats you won’t get.

So, see? Nitpicky. The Walking Dead is a superlative game, though likely it will be greater than the sum of its parts– in the end.

Notable Extras

The biggest, and smartest thing, that Telltale has done for its games, beginning with The Walking Dead Season 1 and continuing in their Fables adaptation, The Wolf Among Us, is provide a breakdown of the choices that you make versus what everyone else has made. This has the fascinating outcome of almost forcing you into wanting to play again. And you will– because the stark numbers of what you did and did not choose have the startling effect of emphasizing how easy it would have been to make the other choice– and how many other people did.  (As a side note, at GDC2013 TellTale’s former writers Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin talked about the choice of Doug Vs. Carley from TWD Season 1.  75% of people saved one, 25% of people saved the other– a problem, in TTG’s minds. So they sought to create environments in which the choices were more evenly split, showing a true divide in player consensus. Those choices seem less polarizing in All That Remains”, but it’s still fun to see.)

SpawnFirst Recommends …

Yeah, I mean, absolutely. Pick up the season pass while you’re at it. These are games that reward patience and replays, and their longevity is significant. “All That Remains” will feel a little like a prologue or a mid-season teaser for a show you’ve been waiting for a long time to come back on. Let’s hope TTG gets episode 2 out soon. And in the meantime? You can explore all those other choices you didn’t make.

I’m imagining all of you sitting across from me at a very long banquet table, staring me down like I’m on the receiving end of the world’s weirdest interview. There’s Elizabeth from BioShock: Infinite, Lara from Tomb Raider, Ellie from The Last of Us, Nilin from Remember Me, Jodie from Beyond: Two Souls. Lingering in a dark corner is Daisy Fitzroy, and in the doorway with a cup of lukewarm coffee is Rosalind Lutece (the coffee was warm, will be warm, has been warm, is warm).

Before you all give me the side-eye, I have to tell you– if you don’t already know– that I am at times a cliche of a girl gamer. I like games with female protagonist. I like books with female protagonists, I like TV shows with female protagonists. I’m old enough to have been in high school when Buffy: the Vampire Slayer aired on TV for the first time. I like strong girls, I like watching strong girls, and best of all, I like playing as a strong girl. So, yeah, I gravitate towards games with powerful women. I always, always played as Sonja Blade in Mortal Kombat on the Gameboy, I’ve played The Longest Journey more times than I can count, and FemShep is the only true Shep in my eyes.

There are a lot more people who could have been invited to this, but we all know that this one’s about you: the girls who ran the length of the games we played this year. The word protagonist means the chief character, but in common usage also means the character that propels the story forward. This is an austere lot, and all of you protagonists. And wha’s hitting me is that it never mattered to you that you were a girl, did it?

None of you were ever concerned with the conventional or unconventional trappings of what it might mean to Be a Girl. Most of you never changed clothes, let alone glanced in a mirror to fix your makeup. Only one of you bothered with dating, but it definitely wasn’t the definition of your existence. You all had other things to deal with. You had life and death, memories, fate, ghosts, souls, conflicting narratives, time, and bows and arrows to deal with.

I’m trying to think, Lara, what you might have said if I had asked you to go on a date with some boy I was bringing by. I’m picturing your face, Elizabeth, if I’d wanted you to change to a new pair of heels that had nothing to do with the major life changes you went through on your own. Jodie, I know you changed clothes several times, but I’m letting that one skate by.

So here we go.

Lara, we kicked off the year with you in March, and you slinked your way through rain-soaked jungles into our hearts. You were smart, appropriately proportioned (gone are the polygonal breasts of yesteryear), and you could handle your way with a bow and arrow and pickaxe. You were intellectually stimulated by old books and treasures you found on the island you washed up on, and you had genuine moments of badassery in your quest to save a friend. It wasn’t hard to feel like if you didn’t have to beat the crap out of all the lunatics left on the island, you could have outsmarted them. You’re the Hermione of video game girls, if Hermione could kill a man with a piece of rock. You were perhaps the only girl in 2013 to be in a game to pass the Bechdel test, and for those of us who grew up with you– I was 13 when we first met– you were a welcome and much-needed revamp of the awesome woman you’ve always been.

And then came you, Elizabeth, closely on Lara’s heels in March too. I don’t know how to explain to you how we’ve all been conditioned to feel about escort games and escort missions (see: Enslaved). Maybe that’s unfair to Enslaved. I only ever played the demo, after all, and then realized that I could barely keep myself alive, let alone someone else who could barely fend for herself. I was worried about you when we first met. You were inside a giant statue, after all, with a giant mechanical songbird as your best friend. But the second we bust out into the world of Columbia and the words on screen came up “You don’t need to protect Elizabeth in combat. She can take care of herself”, I knew we had a pipe of a different color. I knew you were different. And I’ll never know how to repay you for those medkits and salts you tossed my way. You were coy and angry and beautiful and defiant, scared and smart, honest and endearing all in one breath. So, yes, there are some issues with the game you inhabit that have nothing to do with you– those pesky time paradox kinds of problems, but I hope you don’t mind if I tell you that you occasionally haunt my dreams with your Bambi eyes and your murderer’s hands. The most fascinating part of BioShock Infinite is your story, the one I help facilitate. Your character growth is the growth that I treasure, and it’s you I’m protecting even if I don’t have to mechanically do it.

But, look, Elizabeth, to say that you’re the only girl in BioShock: Infinite worth mentioning is to ignore some of the most fascinating characters of the year: Daisy Fitzroy and Rosalind Lutece. Daisy, you’re a cipher, more of an archetype and plot element than you were a person (“You’re complicating the narrative,”) but you represented a female Big Bad, in Joss Whedon parlance, that we didn’t have another example of in 2013. You’re a solid enemy in a world full of morally ambivalent characters. And as for you, Rosalind (or Robert?), Infinite is the world you created. Elizabeth may have been the protagonist, Daisy a protagonist, but you were the catalyst. Hell, the first line in the game was yours– and yours.  We don’t meet women (slash-men) like you often. I keep praying for an iOS game where I can just have grammar-bending conversations with you-and-you all day long, but I suspect Irrational has other things to do.

So now we come to Nilin. I feel bad for you, in some ways, because you were handicapped from the start. The game that surrounded you just couldn’t hold up to its own premise and your impossible coolness, and it sank under the weight of its own confused bloat. That happens. I like to think of it like a papier mache parade float in the rain– messy and sticky but with an idea that maybe it was once attractive. But, hey, let’s put that aside and focus on you. You were the shining star of a game that should have been better, a beautiful girl (and the only biracial one in this letter) with an amazing outfit, awesome fighting moves, and a doozy of a memory problem. I felt sometimes like I could sense your frustration, sitting on those digitized stairs between chapters, staring down at your memory glove/Omni-tool, wondering what more you could have done with it if you’d been given the chance. Your game should have been better. You were still cool as hell.

Which brings us to you, Ellie. The Last of Us is an emotionally hard game. It just sucks in places, in the best kind of way, and when I finished it I felt like I needed to go overdose on My Little Pony episodes. And a huge part of that came from you. The Last of Us is partly Joel’s story, partly yours, but we did what we did as Joel so that we could get you through to the end– to save humanity, and then, ultimately, to save you. But there are parts of the story that are wholly yours, devastatingly so, like when you crawl around the burning tavern, desperate to save yourself from David, who was kind of an asshole, but that didn’t make killing him any easier. You were tough, smart, sad, wise, young, naive, and brutal in turns when you needed to be. And it’s hard not to feel like when you asked Joel, in the end, to swear that his story about the Fireflies is true, that you weren’t a lot like Buffy asking Giles to lie to you.

But you know what? The Last of Us didn’t just have you, when it comes to awesome females. Naughty Dog has a history of epic women (I see you, Elena and Chloe), and you had a pretty stunning round-up of Tess and Marlene and even Maria. These were all battle (and zombie)-hardened women just doing the best they could to survive. You know better than I do, Ellie, that Tess was supposed to be the bad guy, but she grew sympathetic all on her own. It’s still hard to watch her die. Be glad you never had to do that.

It wasn’t for a couple of months that Beyond: Two Souls came out, which was when we met you, Jodie. Let’s get out of the way that you’re the only one whose life resembled a dating sim on occasion (to include choosing which outfit to wear on a date). Let’s focus instead on the fact that we saw your life, albeit disjointed, from your birth to your adulthood, complete with all of the complications in between. We watched you suffer through humiliation at a birthday party, snowball fights with neighborhood kids that nearly ended in tragedy, homelessness in the most gut-wrenching of ways, and, yeah, romantic options. In some ways, you were the most girly of the bunch, in both the best and the worst of ways, whatever the word girly means. But you were also strong, brutal, sad, devastated, dreamy, funny, cynical, biting, smart, and hopeful all in the same breath. So what if your romantic choice came down to a decision on which button on the PS controller I hit. And maybe tha’s a lot like real life anyway, so who can fault you that?

I nearly forgot about you, Clementine. That might be easy to do. You’re small, you know? And you cut off all your hair so walkers couldn’t grab you. We spent a long time as Lee trying to protect you from all of those things that wanted to do terrible things to you in the woods or on trains or in hotels in Savannah. You have the most unabashed sense of hopefulness of anyone here, and even in 2013, which found you zombie-hardened, it wasn’t hard to feel like, with your guidance, optimism would spring eternal. You lost some friends, you made some hard choices. Your story has just begun, honestly, but it’s hard not to feel like you and Ellie should spend a little bit of time together, swap notes, compare guns, and find some time to be hopeful about the future. People have done some bad things to you, but they’ve also been impossibly kind. I hope the future does treat you kindly. I hope people do too, even if I know they won’t.

This isn’t any kind of letter without acknowledging the boys of GTAV. I see you sitting in the corner, drinking your whisky, smoking your cigarettes, wondering how you got here. Guys, maybe you noticed this too, but the women who surround you seem to have shrillness as their primary character motivation, and you don’t treat them very well–but, it seems, San Andreas isn’t much of a place to treat women all that well. Franklin, your conversations with those stripper girls is as much a terrible reflection on you as it is on her, and I have to wonder where her Interior Life begins, or if she even has one. I guess it’s okay to touch them, as long as you flirt badly, isn’t it? And Michael, you’re right, probably your wife is the bad one here. Her only modes seem to be yelling at you and cheating on you, so how could you possibly be to blame, right? And Trevor, well, you’re only redeemable in my eyes when you have a full beard, but that’s neither here nor there. I hear what you’re muttering at me; it sounds a little like, We’re not bad, we’re just drawn that way. It’s not your fault that the women who surround you come from Vapid Women Central Casting.

I think a lot of people like to accuse you guys of hating women. I suspect you hate yourselves a little bit too.

So there’s a little bit of mourning here, hence the pouring one out. It’s hard to imagine a year with better female protagonists than this one. Where do you go from Elizabeth and Ellie and Lara? To some degree, where we go is to a future of our own making– bear with me. Like the FemSheps of yesteryear, some of the women of 2014 may be the ones we create for ourselves.  In Destiny (Bungie, 9 September 2014), in Elder Scrolls Online (ZeniMax, 4 April 2014). And if not, we have Zoe’s story to explore in Dreamfall Chapters (Red Thread Games, November 2014). The women of 2014 may be the RPG women we create. And there’s nothing wrong with that– but it’s hard not to hope for something better.

This got away from me a little bit. Let’s bring it back down to reality. In 2013, being a girl in a game had less to do with being female than ever. It had to do with a keen ability to scramble up a rock face with snow pouring down, or rapid displays of grammar confusion, or time paradoxes, or zombie apocalypses. We can only hope this means something for the future– that the writers and designers of the games of the future see women not as props for shrillness but instead protagonists, antagonists, and catalysts. Here’s to the girls of 2013– and the girls to come in 2014 and beyond.

(Originally published on SpawnFirst.com on 10 October 2013.)

Whatever else I say here, however critical, there’s one thing you should know up front: I played this game all the way through in what was, in essence, one sitting– of my own volition. This probably says as much about me as it does about Beyond: Two Souls, but whatever else, it’s a compelling, enthralling mess of a game.

Story

You begin as Jodie Holmes, a young woman with a dubious gift: she has an entity named Aiden tethered to her by an otherworldly sparkling purple chain. Aiden can knock over things at her command (and his own) and can enter the bodies of the unsuspecting to control them for various purposes. This gains her the attraction of Nathan Dawkins and the Department of Paranormal Activities, a military-run organization dedicated to studying these entities and the world, well, beyond ours. It also attracts the attention of the CIA, because of course it does, and those around the world who are seeking to build a Condenser, a tool that will open the rift between our world and the other one. B:TS is about Jodie’s journey over fifteen years of her life, with Aiden, through the world she lives in in order to discover the world on the other side. She goes through some staggering highs and lows until she reaches that ultimate destination.

To talk about it more might spoil the whole thing– and it’d imply that B:TS is a game whose plot can be so condensed. It’s hard to even define a genre for the game: it is, by turns, survival horror, third-person shooter, tactical stealth, and interactive drama.

Gameplay

Get prepared for carpal tunnel. Playing a Quantic Dream game kind of comes down to your ability to play Simon Says: you follow a lot of button prompts for quicktime events. Where there aren’t button prompts, there’s a little white dot showing you that you should be moving your right stick in some direction or another (though what that direction was was occasionally opaque to me). Combat also comes down to button prompts or moving your right stick in the direction of Jodie’s arm/body/leg/head/??? when a slow-motion prompt is given. Maybe it was just me, but it was often nearly impossible to tell which direction I should be moving. I’ll be the first to admit that I sometimes stopped the game to turn it to easy in order to have the game show me exactly which direction I should move the stick in. That said, the game doesn’t want you to die, and won’t let you– and if you wander too far in a direction you’re not supposed to, it’ll helpfully turn you back around.

You also sometimes play as Aiden, a non-corporeal entity that can go out a short distance from Jodie and play with machinery, furniture, people, whatever. He defends Jodie against monsters, helps her get into rooms, and shoots Somalis in the head (really). The game will force you to play as Aiden a few times a chapter, and if his untied floating makes you nauseous, you can turn the game to easy, where he’ll sort of swing back and forth between bright orange dots.

You will also sometimes ride a horse, command a submarine, or swish along on skis, but those moments are so far and few between to be almost negligible to mention. You mostly walk, wiggle your right stick, walk some more, hit the X button, and then walk some more. The game is occasionally more movie than it is game, though that opens the floor for one of those “what makes a game a game anyway” conversations. Some of the so-called choices become more an issue of “Once I do this one thing, then I get to watch the result of my actions,” rather than actually playing through them.

Once you’ve completed the game, you do have the option of going back and replaying single chapters, which I took advantage of. Some of them you will never, ever want to see again, but some are worth a revisit.

Graphics & Sound

Well, the people certainly look and sound great. B:TS has an amazing cast of principals (Ellen Page as Jodie, Willem Dafoe as Nathan, Eric Winter as CIA officer Ryan Clayton) and secondaries who make the characters come to life. This is aided in large part by Quantic Dream’s use of the facial animation that’s bridging the gap on that whole uncanny valley thing. Nobody’s opening and closing their mouths, dead fish-like. All of the performances feel real and nuanced, and Page leads the charge.

The set pieces are often very beautiful, but the textures of exteriors often look too contrasted, too sharp, and the interior textures are too shiny and spotless, even when covered in blood. It’s hard to know where to look in a lot of the scenes, everyone’s so bright and sharp and contrasted. The sound was also problematic– though the music was gorgeous. (Of note, Normand Corbeil, who also did Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy did the score on this, and he unfortunately passed away of pancreatic cancer. Lorne Balfe took over, and Hans Zimmer joined him as a producer.)

Issues

So before I get into the big stuff, let’s get the little (or at least more straight forward) stuff out of the way: I occasionally had a hard time with B:TS for reasons that ranged from the lighting to the sound. Scenes would often become suddenly so dark that I found myself reaching for the remote and pausing the gameplay so I could adjust the brightness on my TV only to have to turn it back down again in the next scene. I also lost whole dialogue pieces because of sound volume issues (sound disappearing behind music, etc.) and occasionally struggled to figure out which dialogue button to press.  (You know, like: “If I push yes here, am I agreeing to give this guy sexual favors behind the dumpster in exchange for food?  Is that what he said?!”) As noted above, the combat was sometimes a huge pain, but this can be resolved by hitting the easy button and getting big distracting white arrows to show you which direction to swipe in.

The game is told anachronistically, jumping around in time to what are theoretically important moments in Jodie’s development, though some of them seem like throwaways. The pacing and placing of these scenes seems almost nonsensical at times, and you’re forced, as Jodie, to make decisions without understanding what the context for those decisions might be. When you end up on a Navajo ranch (don’t even get me started with this little tidbit in Jodie’s personal history), it’s hard to understand where Jodie came from, what her mindset might be, except that you know, generally, at some point in the past she was running from allegedly bad people and was homeless at some point in time or another. At some point, Jodie goes on a dinner date with CIA handler Ryan, and the only way you can tell that it’s a good thing is that Jodie giggles when he calls– because you’ve seen him all of 2 or 3 times before, and not always under the best circumstances. I began making romantic choices just based on the attractiveness levels of the male characters, not because of any narrative relevance (though maybe that’s a metaphor for life).

On the flip side, there are some scenes, such as a very early scene where Jodie is helping Ryan commit what seems to be a heist, that never offer any additional context at all. It becomes easy to look back on the memory strand that is the load screens between chapters and wonder why some of them were in there at all. The game does some clean-up at the end to try to explain why the story was told in leaps and bounds and backward motion, but it feels like exactly that: clean-up.

To have any chance of enjoying some of this means to put yourself in a total state of willing suspension of disbelief.  Cursed Navajo ranch? Absolutely. Kazakh military base? Sure. Battle scenes on the streets of Mogadishu? Why not. Everyone seems to be doing it these days, right?

And that may be one of B:TS‘s bigger struggles: it’s not going to be able to escape the comparisons to the games it either knowingly or unknowingly has borrowed from. Some are internal to Quantic Dreams: a dinner scene, though less morose and with the addition of Aiden, is nearly identical in gameplay to the one in Heavy Rain when Ethan watches his son Shaun. Some are things people have been saying for months while the game has been in development– that Jodie is nearly identical to Ellie, the young protagonist of Naughty Dog’s superb Last of Us. If you saw and loved Last of Us, you will not be able to unsee Ellie in some of the scenes, particularly the ones where Jodie is running around in the snow. Jodie also seems to have borrowed Lara Croft’s costume in places and there are Resident Evil tones in other places.

It feels like a game that’s trying to be all games, and in some ways it is. It’s almost 20 different mini games: the weird love child of Uncharted and Remember Me and Resident Evil and Last of Us and Indigo Prophecy and whatever else was lying around on the floor to put on to an idea board.

Some of the chapters are a lot of fun and have internal consistency, even if everything else makes no sense around it.  What this makes for is uneven gameplay, distorted pacing, and an inability to care about the characters the way you feel you’re supposed to. There’s a mild romantic subplot, and there’s no way to tell if one of the two guys of Jodie’s choosing is even a nice person because of the broken storyline– though, again, maybe this is true to life.  It’s hard to care about Jodie’s unwillingness to steal a few quarters from a newspaper machine when you were just slaughtering a bunch of people, bad guys or otherwise. It also becomes laughable when a child confronts you about a crime you’ve just committed. You’re supposed to care, but the emotional resonance is cheap and almost insulting. Any sympathy we have for Jodie and her fate and her relationships with people comes either from the story within the chapter itself or from Ellen Page’s performance, which is a heavy burden for her to bear alone. This is even more challenging when playing as Aiden, whose motivations are projected upon him by Jodie. Do you, as Aiden, disturb Jodie’s date? Or do you, as the player, sit there and just watch it to try to figure out if you even like the guy or not?

Towards the end, even some of the stronger characters devolve into silliness, but you lose track of where they were, sanity-wise, four hours ago anyway, so it really doesn’t matter. And the game’s creator, David Cage, says that there are 23 different endings, though they seem to be variations on five primary ones– and the final choice, and indeed the final action of the game, comes jarringly down to a multiple-choice quiz of sorts. The choices you’ve made throughout the game have very little functional bearing on the actual ending: that choice comes down to which button you press.

I was invested in the ending, but it’s hard to escape the idea that that may just be because I’d just invested 10 straight hours in it and I felt like my wrist pain needed to be for something.

Multiplayer

There is a two-player co-op mode where one player plays as Aiden, the other as Jodie, and you can switch back and forth between the two by pressing triangle. It’s hard to imagine this enhancing the gameplay, but it’s there.

Notable Extras

You can play B:TS from your smartphone with a downloadable app that is just a touchscreen that you can swipe to make the characters move. The game does switch to easy mode if you play it this way, however.

SpawnFirst Recommends

I played it through in 10 straight hours because my brain kept saying, What new weirdness will I find around this corner? — and in that sense, I wasn’t disappointed. If you buy it cheap, you probably won’t regret it too much. If you really want to go play a fun Quantic Dream game, however, go find Indigo Prophecy (known in some places as Fahrenheit). It has its own insanity– but not at the detriment of the game.

All screenshots are copyright Quantic Dreams.

(Originally published at SpawnFirst.com.)

Outlast, by Montreal-based Red Barrels, is an exercise in pure survival horror. Red Barrels has a doozy of a team made up of EA and Ubisoft vets who clearly decided to take what makes survival horror games most successful and mash them together in a clean, uncomplicated horror game: terror, survival, and a lack of resources. Outlast is tense and claustrophobic and frankly just great fun to play, and for fans of the genre, it’s a must-buy.

You may have to stop and take a break, go get a drink, come back several hours later, let your nerves settle. Don’t worry, nobody can hear you scream.

Story/Concept

You are Miles Upshur, a reporter who, after receiving an anonymous tip, drives to the moody Mount Massive Asylum, run by the (naturally) shady Murkoff Corporation (Umbrella-style), to investigate. Flashing figures in the windows and empty military riot vehicles in the driveway are the kind of indication that you should run very, very far away, but this wouldn’t be a survival horror game if you do. So you hop on some scaffolding and push your way into the asylum, where it becomes immediately clear that this is not somewhere you want to be. Someone attacks you, and the game shifts immediately from investigative to sheer survival as you run through dark hallways, away from (and sometimes into) strange, demented patients.

The game is bloody, strewn with the pieces of people who have died or been killed the halls of Mount Asylum. As you descend into the pits of the building, including into its sewers, in a hope to simply make it out alive, more and more of the damaged residents become enemies. Any person you encounter could be an enemy or a victim. Outlast is a decidedly mature game, and at any turn you can’t rule out the possibility of violence or creepy sexual activities.

Without giving anything away, the plot could have come out of any number of B horror movies– and the characters themselves are from central casting’s “crazy people” book (and some of them look like Fallout 3’s ghouls)– but it doesn’t need the most compelling plot to be a thoroughly enthralling game. The story is a means to an end, and the end is survival. There are, however, occasionally great narrative touches (one notable moment is when you have the exit in sight and you’re slowly pulled away from it, inert, confined to a wheelchair– you slowly and horrifyingly watch the exit disappear into the distance).

Gameplay

There are no weapons, a lack of ammo traded for a lack of batteries, which are used to power the battery on your hand-held camera’s night vision (similar to Alan Wake’s flashlight). This is an important gameplay element in the sometimes completely dark environs of the Mount Massive Asylum, and the camera can be shifted to or away from your face mid-run, to horrifying effect. Every use of the night vision carries with it the sinking fear that it’s going to reveal something in the dark that you would really rather not see. Sometimes standing in the dark feels like the sanest thing to do. In an early moment, as an enemy approaches from down the hall, the game warns you to hide– because there’s no hope in fighting. You watch, mutely, probably breathing heavily, through the tiny slits through a locker door. Running and hiding are your only two options most of the time. Jumping is organic and easy, and the running itself feels fluid and natural. You occasionally squeeze through cracks Nathan Drake-style, and moving to open or close doors as you run away from things is quick and intuitive.

What Outlast does best is play with the negative space, the darkness where things can go bump without being seen. It almost seems underwhelming when the lights do come up and the floors are covered in blood and there’s strange writing on the walls. Your objectives are linear and clear-cut (turn on this light, follow this path, escape), but it’s not always immediately obvious which way you should be running; this adds to the confusion and the horror of turning a corner to find yourself confronted with an enemy.

You will have genuine moments where you’re just running. Where to? It doesn’t matter. Away.

Pieces of the story are also revealed through optional documents and recording of notes (only available when the camera is on). The further the story gets, the less time you’ll want to spend on these. Anything that could keep you from running away from the thing breathing over your shoulder isn’t a thing to deal with.

Some occasional combat moments read like Telltale’s Walking Dead— more like quicktime events than actual combat. If they weren’t so sparse, they might detract from the game; Outlast is so fluid that the sudden appearance of a mouse on the screen to tell you to do something seems jarring.

Graphics and Sound

Generally, Outlast looks and feels great. There are some great set pieces, from a room scrawled with crazy writing to prison-style showers. Even the early moments of the game, when Miles drives up to the asylum, are beautifully crafted, from the moody weather to the sunset. At a midway point in the game, it’s pouring outside, and if you glance out the window (probably mid-sprint), you can see the sprays of water as the rain comes down. Less successful are the character models, faces that don’t quite blend in with the environment, and every time you see the main character’s hands you’ll wish you hadn’t (he doesn’t seem to have a thumb, only five fingers). But these things don’t detract from the game, mostly because you won’t have much time to think about any of them while you’re running away.

The dialogue, while occasionally redundant, is sufficiently creepy, and most of the voices will sound the same, but that somehow adds to the lyrically horrific tonal quality to the whole game. The sound is excellent: distant screams or voices are atmospheric, occasionally oppressive, and always an appreciable part of the environment. A surprisingly effective touch is a little manipulation of the emotions: whenever Miles is terrified or running or tense, his breathing picks up. It has the effect of making the terror dramatically more convincing– you feel more terrified because you know how terrified Miles is. It’s a trick used to awesome effect, though you may experience the same instinct I did: that the game would be less scary with it on mute.

SpawnFirst Recommends …

Definitely buy this. It’s terrifying and great fun to play. It has the tendency to feel like an amalgamation of a lot of other games without being immediately identifiable as derivative of any of them. In creating Outlast, Red Barrels lifted some of the best qualities of the genre and made them their own. You’ll love it, and you’ll probably hate it a little too– for all the best reasons.

All screenshots are copyright Red Barrel Games.

(Originally published at SpawnFirst.com.)

A disclaimer:

Before I played Star Wars: The Old Republic, my only real experience with MMORPGs – except for running, terrified, in and out of IRC chats back when that was a thing – was a brief foray into Funcom’s Secret World.  I’m almost 30, so I understand that this is kind of shameful as far as being a gamer goes. I don’t know how many hours I spent on Secret World, which for some reason also included a lot of time buying clothing for my character so that she looked like an amped-up Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I do know I never got very far. I kept wandering into areas of the world that clearly never intended for me to be there, mocking my character level while dispensing with me quickly. Defeat of high-powered enemies often came down to an issue of timing and living on a prayer. One particular boss battle, which had something to do with a ship and Mirelurks or whatever they were, I played probably close to 30 times before narrowly defeating him and then dying anyway because of some spell he’d put on me. I’m not a terrible gamer. Secret World made me feel awful. (As a side note, I never did much see groups of people running around in the Secret World the way I do SWTOR. This may come down to an issue of longevity and the fact that I played it well after it came out, or maybe people just like to be Illuminati alone but join the Republic in groups.)

It took me 9 hours to get all of the patches I’ve been neglecting. I think I might also have paid real human money for that trench coat. Because the important thing about being an Illuminati is having the right wardrobe.

So you can imagine how I felt about starting Star Wars: The Old Republic. On the one hand, I love just about everything BioWare does. BioWare’s brilliant Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003) looms large in my personal legend, a feat of narrative design within an excruciatingly familiar intellectual property that’s imminently replayable, even now. After KOTOR, it seemed pretty clear that a game could both be a BioWare game and a KOTOR game. But the truth was that I missed some kind of cultural step somewhere along the way when it comes to gaming. I’m not sure how I did it. Except for a brief period in the early 90s when I actually played outside some, I was, more or less, With It. But I missed something significant. I missed the call to the dark side that is MMORPGs. They seem, generally, right up my alley. There is literally no reason why I never played World of Warcraft or EVE or Everquest. If I tell you that playing SWTOR single player was an intellectual or artistic choice, I’m probably lying to you– but I will say that I did it to some degree to see if you could.

I have no idea why I designed someone who looks like a mixture between Jem and the Last Unicorn but she sure is saucy.

The beauty of Star Wars: The Old Republic is that the answer to that question is that you can. BioWare has always been known for their quality of writing, and both of their Star Wars games are superior in that respect. I have a strange relationship with morality choices in video games, and I think the world is probably pretty firmly divided in this respect: it’s impossible for me to make the bad, immoral, or in this case Dark Side choice. An early Sith plot point involved torturing people for information (or for fun). BioWare made me feel dirty for feeling like that was the right decision for my evil character, but it was, and I did it, and we all moved on. Except for the guy I tortured. I’m pretty sure he’s dead. Most of these major plot points are done in single instances. It’s just you and your companion and your light saber.  Your choices are yours alone.

Only one may enter.

The first time playing by myself actually became a problem was when I was at the low end of the level spectrum that I needed to be for a particular boss fight. I’d bravely charged into my Jedi Knight cave* with my faithful droid by my side.  SWTOR does a good job at making sure you aren’t somewhere before you’re an appropriate level, but for whatever reason, again and again, I watched my companion die and then me. The built-in delay time to have a medical probe revive me then and there became distractingly and prohibitively longer. I went downstairs to make myself coffee. Eventually I just turned off the game.  (This is my long-tested strategy for dealing with impossible games: walk away, forget about it, come back to it months later, forget how to use the controls, spend a week getting back up to speed. See also: Alan Wake.) I called my brother, and he sighed heavily at me. “I should have warned you about this,” he said, being far more the MMORPG expert than I am, and he introduced me to the term grinding. I came crawling back to it one Sunday morning, determined to level up enough to beat this son of a gun. Several hours and several cups of coffee and several thousand** Imperial soldiers later, I beat that guy. And then the next and the next.

This guy has beaten the crap out of me so many times I’m not convinced he’s not in love with me.

It would have been easier to hit up the group queue, get some group missions out of the way, level up, and move on. I could enter into some PvP territory and take advantage of the great gear that would become available to me. I didn’t do that– because I didn’t have to.  I could play it like it wasn’t an MMORPG at all. And this is where SWTOR succeeds. It can be and often is the game you want it to be– whether you’re venturing into PvP territory, you launch into group missions, or you wander around the Republic Fleet searching for that Jedi Knight trainer all by yourself.

You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy …. I also have no idea how Kira got that bucket on her head. She probably used to be an adventurer.

So I get that I’m missing out on things. This becomes painfully obvious whenever I go into my mission tracker and disable tracking on HEROIC missions. It’s like a subtle judgment that I’m clearly projecting on myself: because you haven’t joined a group, you cannot be HEROIC. I look at the green sheen over entrances and hover over it with my mouse; GROUP PHASE, it says, and I turn away. There’s a whole other world to SWTOR I’m not playing.

Sometimes that little box pops up, inviting me to join a group. It’s usually someone who’s just helped me kill a herd of rakghoul or whom I’ve helped to kill an Imperial marksman, and we stand around giving each other what I assume is an invisible head nod or fist bump. We look at each other briefly, and that box comes onto my screen. Maybe this time, I think to myself. And then I shake my head and hit the decline button. I imagine the other person looking at their screen, flabbergasted, thinking, I thought this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. One day I’ll hit accept. I won’t know what to do after that. If you run into me in the wilds of Tatooine, be kind.

* It was probably a cave.

** It at least felt like several thousand.

(Originally published at SpawnFirst.com on 1 September 2013.)

The one thing that can sum up BioWare’s Dragon Age: Inquisition, the worthy and exciting follow-up to BioWare’s sometimes-disappointing Dragon Age 2? “Shut up and take our money.”*

There was something weird about the Dragon Age session at Dragon Con before it began. The panel before it, a Dishonored: Behind the Scenes, had barely just began when we arrived, to be greeted by a line that had already looped back onto itself.  Among those already in line was a group of Dragon Age cosplayers, all perfectly coordinated (imagine the indignity of two Morrigans showing up at the same event!), and everyone waited patiently for an hour-and-a-half for an hour long session. As one organizer noted, “We didn’t even line these guys up until a few days ago!” (some last-minute fan-tweeting got them to Atlanta), and the room filled easily an hour before the panel was scheduled to begin. The excitement and emotion in the room was palpable. David Gaider, the senior writer on the Dragon Age series, and Aidan Scanlan, the Director of Design at BioWare, opened with a few absinthe stories that involve Obsidian’s Chris Avellone and probably need to stay at Dragon Con, and then they asked, “Did everyone see what happened earlier today at PAX?” (Those of us at Dragon Con know that most of us have almost no internet on our phones at any given time– the answer was, resoundingly, no.) Great, Gaider and Aidan said. We’re going to show you.

Inquisition takes place a couple of months after Cassandra’s interrogation of Varric in Dragon Age 2, which make its events concurrent to DA2. War is plaguing the land, and magic has broken the skies.  You play the Inquisitor, the leader of the Inquisition, looking for truth and seeking to settle unrest in all of the land. Inquisition looks to be pretty immediately a BioWare game– in the best of ways. Its beautiful landscapes resemble the best of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, its quippy companion characters are purely BioWare, and its emphasis on choice, though primarily only alluded to, is one made famous by BioWare. Crestwood is the first set piece introduced by BioWare, and they tout it as being both bigger than anything in Dragon Age 2 and yet not as big as the biggest land in DGI. As you run through the flowered hills, you come over a crest to see a rift in the sky that resembles the aurora borealis but is startlingly more sinister.

BioWare, as always, is focused on player choice, but Inquisition takes on a more strategic view– you, as the Inquisitor, choose the path of the Inquisition, and, subsequently, the tenor of it. You have spies and agents working on your behalf all across the land, various assets you can use to determine the future of the Inquisition. This seems at first blush to be far from the binary paragon/renegade choices of this writer’s favorite game, but instead seem to spread beyond immediate choices to the far-reaching implications of a nation-wide war.

“Think about the adventure,” BioWare says. Gone are the health potions of yesteryear, and the future is fewer potions and no more healing after combat. Combat is no longer relegated to single instances– strategy has to become part of the conversation for Dragon Age players.

An example of this offered by BioWare is in sending men to save a village or sending them to bolster a keep– the long-term implications of both of these will play out in different ways. The choices you make will open up and close off areas of the game. When asked if this would necessitate many playthroughs, Gaider noted just that this would become an issue of balance for BioWare in the next year of development.

So what else is new? One of the most exciting additions is a playable qunari race, both as female and male (which was met by much applause in the Dragon Con room).

Another significant change is one of strategic and tactical combat; as in the prior two games, both the player-character and the companions are controllable in combat, but Inquisition offers a more strategic command of combat situations. A new top-down view and an ability to completely pause and plan actions while in combat offer the player the option of orchestrating and better using all of the abilities of your characters. One particularly impressive demonstration of this came in capturing a keep– Cassandra, now a companion character, batters down the doors of a keep controlled by cultists, and your mage companion rushes to freeze some archers, enabling you to take down an entire bridge with a few waves of your two-handed sword. But beware of your enemies: you could very well wander in to a situation where you aren’t leveled to be able to beat your attackers. Walking away from combat is also an option– to return later, better weapons, better abilities, better skills in tow.

All along the landscape are caves woven seamlessly into the gameplay; no load screens, says BioWare. These are open for exploration but not required. Dragons will also feature heavily, and there are several scattered throughout the game, all with their own unique challenges. All are optional, but all are designed to stretch the player to their limits. In one example of this, a dragon flying overhead scorches the earth with a river of flame.

As part of your grand Inquisition plan, as you take over keeps to enable you to try to fix what’s wrong in the land, you can customize those keeps– will you have it a haven for spies, a center of commerce, or a military stronghold? You may also seek to build monuments that enhance the Inquisition’s standing, or you may cap vents that block off poisonous gases, opening up new areas.

And your companions? Lots of romance, says Gaider (though he makes no promises about who are romance options). Additionally, rather than the companion-driven dialogue moments of DA2Inquisition shifts back to the player-driven companion interaction of Origins— think the base camp. And as for returning friends, Varric and Cassandra feature heavily in the preview, and we can probably expect to see many more familiar faces along the way. Sandal’s prophecy will also be discovered in Inquisition.

And don’t worry, says BioWare, it won’t be a Dragon Age game without ugly mage hats.

A new import system will also allow players to customize the world of their Inquisition game by making large or small choices prior to gameplay. Alistair or Loghain as a Grey Warden? Who was on the throne at the end of DAO? This is designed in part to offer the players a chance to see how the world is impacted by various choices without necessarily playing through DAO and DA2 again to facilitate those choices. BioWare acknowledges that their import system is faulty, so don’t expect to be able to import full saves from either earlier game.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is planned to be out in fall 2014, but based on what we saw here at Dragon Con, you may as well start salivating now. BioWare looks to have a masterpiece on their hands.

* Courtesy of one of many excited fans.