Thursday, May 30, 2013

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 21: Having a Blast

So here we are in the Moscow finale. I apologize both for the delay and for the massive degree of failure that ensued during this recording session. However, I'm not sorry for the accent. I will never be sorry for the accent.

I like the choice between Albatross and SIE, at least in theory. It would be a meaningful choice both for Mike as a character and the player in terms of gameplay. Sadly, it's a little disappointing how disturbingly similar both versions of these missions are. Aside from the permanent perk you can for the choice between them, it honestly doesn't matter at all. The only things that change are superficial.

If we hadn't have smashed Grigori's face in at the bar, then the guards in this area would be less armed. However, their increased security could have worked to our advantage. Since we were a Veteran (this also works for a Soldier) we could convince them that we're there to protect Surkov with our knowledge of (Alpha?) protocol. The weaker guards can be swayed by anybody. Again, "no bad choices" was a guiding principal when designing this game, and it shows. We could also use the door on the side to sneak in, but it's glitched so that the game automatically assumes you MUDERED THE SHIT OUT OF EVERYONE if you do that.

In order to get the Albatross version of this mission, picture bigger dudes in combat armor being your enemies in this mission, because that's exactly what happens. I do like how SIE and Mina argue with each other over... everything. It shows how opposite the two of them are. Still, this is overall a bit of a letdown, which is even more of a shame since this mission was part of the marketing for the game.

I've noticed that as we continue, Aldowyn has been getting more and more blood-thirsty. I don't even need to tell to shoot people anymore. He just does it. I guess it's just something that happens to LPers.

This "Protect Surkov" mission is one of the missions people come to me with when saying that this game is terrible. Honestly, it's hard to refute them. It terms of play, Moscow is the worst hub in the entire game. Taipei has a terrible plot and Moscow has terrible level design. Despite these flaws, I do really like the game. Goddammit Obsidian, why do you have to be so flawed?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

“What a Terrible Accident” Let's Play Dishonored: Part 3: The Empty Void

Exhausted from my recent activities, I am escorted to my room by Pendleton's servant, Wallace. It's not a particularly great room and it's all the way on the top floor, but I understand that given our current predicament we can't afford 4-star hotels. The bed is a little hard, but in minutes I'm out cold. After an unknown time lapse, I awaken. However, something feels wrong about this place. It looks like my room, obviously, but the air feels foreign. I open the door, greeted by the sight of a lamppost and a portion of a road on top of two small islands, floating in the air. Looking down, I gaze upon a dim white light in what appears to be a bottomless void. There are stories that describe such phenomena. If the tales are true, this is what it's like to be summoned by The Outsider. Part of me still wants to think this is a lucid dream, but the other half knows exactly what's going on. More importantly, both halves realize the futility in denying the Outsider, so I proceed along the path laid out for me.

Climbing the stairs that appear to my left, I end up on what can best be described as the roof of this island. Heading towards the center, I'm greeted by figure whose appearance closely resembles that of a teenager/young adult who is likely bullied regularly by his peers. While I am the opposite of intimidated, this boy refers to himself as the Outsider, and brands me with his mark. Calling it a gift, the Outsider says that he has chosen me, granting me the power to use magic. Then, he taunts me to use this new power to come after him. Once he dematerializes, two thoughts enter my head. The first is more serious: The men who murdered Jessy clearly had this power as well. Did the Outsider give them these powers too? If so, why? Hell, why did it give me the gift of magic, and does it come at a price?

The second thought: Man, this whole “Outsider” guy is really disappointing. I was expecting some kind of elder god whose form was too alien to comprehend. At the very least, he could have looked menacing! And for someone who is, according to legends, the incarnation of chaos itself, he has to have one of the least interest, blandest faces and voices I've ever experienced. This is the abomination the Overseers led by Baldy constantly go on about! He looks like a ponce, which is not a good way to intimidate people. Actually, Poncy sounds like a great nickname for him. Anyway, since I've literally no where else to go, it's down the linear path for me. However, the gap between this island and the next is pretty big, too far for me to jump. Almost instinctively, I squeeze the hand branded by Poncy and release. This causes me to move fast, faster than I even thought possible. It's as if I blinked in and out of existence in some form of short-range teleportation. Since I have no better name for this power, I'll call it Blink.

The island I land on has the appearance of the rotunda where Jessamine died, complete with her body on the ground and a not reading “You cannot save her.” This place appears to be trying to play with my emotions, but I can't let that stop me. Resolved, I continue Blinking from platform to platform until I reach another vignette. This time it appears to be in some wealthy establishment, either a noble house or some kind of hotel/brothel. In it, two men, remarkably similar, yet subtly different in appearance to Pendleton are grabbing Emily and trying to restrain her. A note is flying out of her hand, but the words don't seem like they belong in her mouth. Is this place just playing tricks on me, or is their meaning here? The next image that appears before me on another island is that of the strategy room in Dunwall Tower. It appears that the Mole is either scheming in there now, or will do so later. Immediately afterward I see two guards on stilts, one of which is shooting a flaming arrow at two men hobbling away. So much must have happened in my absence. Does this city even have a chance?

I come across a wall that's too tall for me to climb, so I do what comes (un-)naturally and use Blink to reach the top. I aim just short of the top of the wall, but my ability seems to have the built in fail-safe of automatically landing me at the top of a building should I aim it correctly. This will definitely come in handy later. Advancing further on yields another visit from Poncy. Warning me of “great trials ahead,” Poncy tells me that through the powers of Runes engraved with his symbol, I can further develop my powers as I see fit. To assist in the collection of said Runes, he hands me a Heart, which will beat faster as I grow closer to them. Before I leave, he says that the Heart has a secondary function of revealing the secrets of whatever I'm looking at when I squeeze on it gently, them vanishes once again.

I hold the Heart in my hand, and I feel it beat. A Rune must also be here in the Void. Testing out it's other function, I gently squeeze the Heart. The voice that rings out in my head causes me to jump. There's no possibly way I could mistake that voice. Without a shadow of a doubt, it was Jessamine's. If that's her voice, then this must be... Oh no! First she's murdered in front of me, and now Poncy rips her heart out and gives it to me as some sick joke. I'm not amused. Despite this horrible turn of fate, I'm likely going to need to keep using the Heart if I want to stay prepared for new occupation. Very well Poncy, I will play by your rules as right now they're the best way to get Emily back.

The Heart, along with the linear path laid out for me, makes finding the Rune a trivial matter. Once I pick it up, the brand on my left hand absorbs its power. A vision enters my head, and shows me the myriad ways my magic can develop. Right now, the skills that seem most useful are out of my reach until I acquire more Runes. After I decide to wait until advancing my skills, the vision passes, and Poncy reemerges. After explaining that only I can choose how to use my powers and that he'll be watching me to see what I do, he returns me to my bedroom in the real world.

I wake up in my room, and gaze upon my left hand. Sure enough, the mark is there, just as it was during my “dream”. The Heart is also present, placed in my pocket. For a small test, I squeeze my left hand and release. Sure enough, I can still use Blink. After confirming my suspicions, I look around the room and see a number of decorations that were not present before. A note on my desk reads as follows: “Congratulations on your purchase on the Void Walker's Arsenal. Scattered about your room are the results of your purchase. Use them wisely!” Though it appears the courier dropped these off at the wrong address, I am in no position to complain and decide to make use of these gifts. Since 12 of these presents bear the Outsider's symbol and make the Heart beat like crazy, I conclude that they have something to do with my powers. They are not Runes, but they appear to be old sailor charms, made from whale bones. A vision appears and tells me that these are “Bone Charms,” which pass minor powers onto their wielders when equipped. The best place to affix them appears to be the holes in my belt, so that's where they'll go.

Picking up the four statues that line my room burns new holes into my belt, which I can use to equip more Bone Charms, for a grand total of 8. Among the 12 charms I “earned”, I pick 3 with which to adorn myself, and store the others in my bag. Other items to make note of are 4 pouches, each containing the financial equivalent to 500 Bronze Coins, plenty of money to fund upgrades from Piero. Lastly, I notice 4 books, each detailing a person of great influence in Dunwall. The first is a what appears to be an excerpt from the Mole's personal journal. It describes his constant paranoia that someone will come in and murder the Empress, along with the various countermeasures lined up. He does not seem to be very trusting of the populace, which is ironic in a sense. The last line of the text hints that he likes to spend his time in the Estate District. Considering that's where all the noble families live and party, it should be no surprise.

The second text appears to be from the journal of an Overseer who works undercover on behalf on the Abbey. He appears to be unhappy living among the various thieves and cutthroats of the city. While that's certainly not the best place to be, it certainly beats that den of indoctrination they call The Abbey of the Everyman. Between the streets and their walls, I'd choose the streets any day. While I feel no sympathy for the man, the text that follows his incessant bitching intrigues me. It appears to reference a man named Daud. I had heard the name several times before, as everyone in the upper levels of society knew of him. However, I never attached any significance to the name up until now. If this report is correct, Daud works as an assassin, hired by the “elite” of this city to kill their political rivals. He is known for an art where he vanishes and summarily reappears less than a second later in another close by location, remarkably similar to my own abilities.

Reading on, it appears the Knife of Dunwall has a history with black magic. Rumors speak of his witch-mother and of known ties with the infamous Brigmore coven. The man is also well-educated, apparently spending time in the Academy of Natural Philosophy itself. Finally, the report mentions two thing that really catch my attention. The first: He appears to be in charge of a group of masked assassin. The second: He has been sighted worshiping Poncy at one of his shrines. I need to keep a close eye out for further information on Daud. If this report is at all accurate, then it seems very likely that he's the assassin I saw that day. Apparently I should have been more concerned when hearing his name come up. Still, I never thought someone would be so brazen as to actually order a hit on the Empress in her own castle. I suppose the blame falls more to the one who made the hit than it does to the hitman, but still!

The third of the four documents appears to talk about Slackjaw, a well know gang leader on the outskirts of the city. The Bottle Street Gang's infamous leader, according to this, was likely the daughter of a prostitute who decided to join a gang rather than be pressed in the Navy or made to work in a noble family's mine. The text describes the brutal way he rose from a cutpurse to one of the most feared men in the cities underworld. Despite this, Slackjaw appears to be a stabilizing element of this plague-ridden city. Though the plague elixirs made by Sokolov and Piero are expensive to the average person, the Bottle Street Gang has been making good business selling diluted, cheaper versions of the Sokolov's brew to people. For gangsters, this seems like the closest thing to legitimate business. He's also been offering employment to people outside the usual mob contacts. Decent work in exchange for food and medicine. Who would've though the crime lord would have the closest thing to a heart of gold in this city after Jessamine's death?

The last document is titled “The Journal of Granny Rags.” Everyone in the city knows that name by heart. According to the tales, she was once a wealthy aristocrat to took a dark turn after devoting herself fully to the Outsider. Rumor has it that she has great power at her disposal, and won't hesitate to use it against those who wrong her. From what this text says, the old hag used to be known as Vera Moray. She had parties that surpassed even the Boyle's in their extravagance. Hell, at one point Sokolov made a painting of her, and Sokolov doesn't make paintings of anyone without a fair degree of prestige behind their name. Vera and her husband used to travel the world together, until what appears to be her first contact with Poncy. From then on, she was obsessed with acquiring bones to make Runes and Bone Charms out of, going so far as to kill her own husband for his. Granny Rags sounds dangerous, so it seems wise to avoid crossing her path. I wonder who would have the resources to acquire all of this and yet not enough influence to get them to their correct destination. Unless they were somehow intended for me. If so, then why me? What am I so special? And how would they know I'm here? I doubt I'll ever know the answer.

After I finish my morning reading, I decide to explore the place again, in part because the Heart indicates another Rune is in the area and because I'd like to get some exercise in. After spending half-a-year in prison, I'll take any excuse to get some fresh air. I enter the lighthouse adjacent to my room, and spot an audiograph. It appears to depict a woman planning out lessons for a child. The woman doesn't sound like either Cecelia or Lydia, so it must be someone I haven't yet met. Speaking of those two, I overhear them talking about Samuel. From what they were saying, apparently he can no long sleep in beds, and has decided to take up residence in a small tent near the boat. Poor guy, that can't possibly be comfortable. I enter Pendleton's room and play an audiograph where he appears to be chronicling his life story. It's not very interesting so I won't describe it here. The audiograph in Havelock's room is only slightly more interesting, revealing that he's glad I showed up, but still unsure of my skills.

Before continuing my search for the Rune, I make a pit-stop at Piero's workshop, since by some stroke of luck I'm now 2000 Bronze Coins richer. His audiograph reveals that he's the one who bound the Heart, doing so at the Outsider's behest without even knowing it. I doubt he even knows it was the Empress's heart. If he did, I wonder if he would've still bound it and kept it in a suspended state of half-death like he did. With the money at my disposal, I buy a Rune off of Piero, a few tools to rewire security devices, some of his plague elixirs, and another hole in my belt with which to affix a Bone Charm should I happen to come across any more. The last request causes Piero to give me a curious glance, but he doesn't ask any questions. Exiting the shop, I follow the Heart's beat to a Rune on a small outcropping of nearby rocks. Time seems to stop as I summon a vision into my head. I picture an image of hungry rats being summoned from the void and pour my Rune energy into it. I can feel my magic growing in strength as a direct response, and I know that this new skill is now available to me. I'm ready to speak to Havelock and Pendleton to accept my first assignment....

Sunday, May 26, 2013

“What a Terrible Accident” Let's Play Dishonored: Part 2: The Escape Artist

As it turns out, I have friends on the outside who are willing to help me out. Enclosed in my daily bread was a key to my cell and a note, giving me instructions on how I can break myself out of this god-forsaken prison. Since I'd rather not get hanged tomorrow morning, I decided to do the obvious and make my escape. Outside my cell, a guard left his sword on the table, exactly as the note said he would. In my present condition, a sword may be too heavy and weigh me down too much, so ultimately a decide not to bring it with me, though I take the money left next to it. I turn to the exit and see three guards out on patrol. None of them have seen me yet, so I take the opportunity to grab one in a choke hold, incapacitating him. After dumping him in a safe place, I use some deft maneuvering and stealth to move passed the other two and head upwards. It appears that I somehow located the armory, so I take the time to pilfer a few coins and doses of Sokolov's “amazing” healing tonic/plague elixir.

Before leaving, I hear a few voices outside, so I peep through the keyhole to get a better view. Sure enough, more guards are right there. The gleam of a key radiates from the pocket of one of them, so it seems my next course of action has already been determined. My intuition works in my favor, as the door forward just so happened to be locked. Passing through the yard's walkway, I choke out another poor guardsman on patrol, and proceed to the interrogator's room. As per my instructions, a bomb should be the safe in the back room. If I didn't suspect that Baldy and the Mole weren't evil enough already, an audiograph and note they appear to have left behind that implicate them in their crime. I'll stash them in my prison garbs for later, as they might come in handy.

For whatever reason (presumably because my outside friends set it up), the safe containing a highly volatile explosive compound was left completely unlocked and unguarded. Note to self: After clearing my name and reclaiming my status, remember to lecture the guard about the merits of not keeping explosives out for prisoners to obtain! Oh well, I suppose it makes my job easier in the long run. Luckily, the gate to the yard is unlocked and only two guards are on patrol. Sneaking passed them is trivial, and now I am only a few rooms from freedom. Unfortunately for me, the gate is sealed and the only way passed is to sneak behind the booth to press the switch. Worse, the controls are guarded by on patrol on the outside on the booth and two inside. It may be tricky, but I think I can do it. As I had hoped, Dunwall guards are as clueless as they've ever been. The ease of which I managed to sneak around and choke the guards was surprising. All I had to do was wait for one to walk off and then go for the other, dealing, with his partner in the booth afterward. In only a few moments, the lever is pulled and the gate opened. The next room has only two more guardsman separating me from the taste of fresh air. My training kicks in, and I remember not to be too hasty in my escape. After knocking out the guards and sealing the door back up so that more of them won't come rushing in, I plant the bomb and dive into the river below.

Swimming to dry land isn't a big challenge, as the shore is close by. Prison garbs clinging to my skin, I follow the path set before me in the instructions received and make my way to the city's sewer system. The way forward is blocked, and shit! I hear voices coming from the other side of the door. Thinking quickly, I climb up to the top of a nearby stack of crates and into the crawlspace above. Listening in on their conversation, it becomes clear the one of these two fears me, and the other has no idea what I'm capable of at full strength. Sadly, neither of them will ever live to find out, since as I was moving above them, the rats swarmed in from below. I had figured the plague was getting bad during my “vacation” at Coldridge, but there's no way I could imagine that the rats could become so aggressive so quickly.

Pressing forward, I see a valve that opens a nearby gate, corpse attached to it. Poor man must have also tried to escape through here. It appears I have arrived at a pit that guards have been dumping plague victims into. Fittingly enough, the rats are gnawing at a corpse next to the valve of the next gate, blocking my way. To avoid becoming food for the rats like the gossiping guards back at the entrance, I'll need to use my head. Those corpses look like tasty distractions for the rats, so I pepper them around, away from the valve, and take off. Fortune seems to be on my side this day, as this next room only contains a few, easily disarmed traps. Deftly, I disable them, using a platform above me to navigate around the tripwires, before they spell heartache for me, and make my way to the drop off point indicated in the note from my cell.

There I find a container with gear that will prove most useful. A lightweight, retractable sword, crossbow, and new garments with which to adorn myself. After taking a few moments to change I use the enclosed key to open a nearby door, and spot a safe on the other side. The note next to the safe indicates that to find the code I need to “look to whiskey for the answer.” Since I doubt getting drunk will give me some sort of epiphany, I decide to look around. I spot a shelf of whiskey behind the safe. Behind the numerous bottles of alcohol, there appears to be a combination: 451. Sure enough, the safe unlocks and I obtain a spot of coin and a healing elixir.

As I progress, I find myself above another group of guards. I can see at least two of them, and doubtless there are more. There's not much more I can do besides wait for one of the guards to turn their back so I can choke hold the other. Fortunately, there appears to be path above the guards via the sewer pipes, so I do not have to confront these guys head on. I prepare my sword and crossbow, just to be safe, but as it turns out I have no reason to worry. Daylight quickly reaches across my face, and I breath a sigh of relief as the man I encounter calls my name and tells me he's a friend. The way he acts doesn't give off any obvious discrepancies, so I decide to trust him. Samuel, as he tells me his name is, works for the people who assisted my prison break. His job is to send me to them so that I might meet them in person. Since I've nothing else to do with my time, I tell him I'm ready and we head out.

The boatman takes me to an old dive in the city, calling it “The Hounds Pit Pub”. From what Samuel tells me, this place doubles as the HQ for the organization who lent me their aid. Since they no doubt spent many resources bringing me here, the very least I can do is hear them out. Docking ashore, the old man escorts me to the bar, where I encounter two individuals and stand back for a minute, listening in on their conversation. One of them is clearly nobility, judging by his outfit. The other is in uniform, and has the look of experience in his eyes. My gut tells me he's the leader of this little outfit, likely a navy man. Anyway, they talk about needing me to perform wet-work assignments for their cause. So, they're too chicken shit to get their own hands dirty. It's just as well, I suppose. After all, I need to do some legwork in order to win back my reputation and save Emily. I don't enjoy the thought, but I'll have to steel myself for the trials ahead.

Approaching them, the two introduce themselves as Admiral Farley Havelock and Lord Trevor Pendleton, so my preliminary suppositions were right on the nose. Odds are I've seen them before at the royal court, but Jessy has always been the center of my attention, as more than just her bodyguard. If we did meet I'm having trouble remembering it. They tell me that the Mole has crowned himself “Lord Regent” in the absence of a true heir to the throne, and uses this title to oppress the people of Dunwall. Since my skills and common sense are legendary in this city, they want me to assist their little group of resistance fighters by killing the Lord Regent's allies and ending his reign of tyranny. If it wasn't for the fact that Emily is missing, I'd never even consider the deal. However, I do not have much in the way of options.

Before I get a chance to mingle with the others, my new employers tell me to meet with Piero Joplin, their inventor. This name I am familiar with, if only because Sokolov droned on and on about how it was so unfair that Piero graduated the academy at a younger age than he. If he's an enemy of Sokolov, he's a friend of mine, so I enter his office as politely as possible. As I walk in, he tells me that he's prepared to spend a large portion of his time crafting for me all the tools that I would need. As he prepares to finish his latest work, a tank drops from his machine. I quickly move up the stairs to fetch a replacement, and place it in the receptacle. The little project he's working on just so happens to be a mask which I can use to hide my face from the public. Like it or not, I'm a wanted man, so it's best to be prepared.

Piero explains that this isn't all he can build. Weapons, upgrades, supplies are all covered under his expertise. I politely nod, but deep down I know that I will not need his services as much as he suspects. Dunwall's police force may be stupid, but it's detectives are not. If I'm to succeed in my new life as an assassin, I'll need to make sure that I leave as little trace as possible. They can't even know that there was an intruder. I trained many of the Dunwall Bureau of Investigation myself, I know they have the skill to find me and the professionalism to do it despite their personal feelings of the Mole... I mean Lord Regent. However, since I trained them, I know what they'll be looking for and can use that to keep my mark on the world as concealed as possible. This will take skill, more than I might have even in my best shape.

I look at the list of wears Piero says he'll be able to craft and hand him the money he needs to improve the optics in my mask. Apparently now I'll be able to use it to spy on people from a distance. It even comes with a built in sound amplifier so that I can eavesdrop from further away. For my purposes, this should prove incredibly useful. While I am there, I ask him to drill an extra hole in my belt. Since my stint in Coldridge, I appear to have lost some weight. After he finishes with his work, I smile to Piero and we part ways.

While he recommends I go straight to bed, I feel that exploring the place and getting to know the other residents will be a good use of my time. Overhearing some of the staff, it appears that I've already made impressions, some positive and some negative. Pendleton's servant Wallace seems like asshole. A bit too stuck up for my personal tastes. On the other hand, Havelock's bartender, Cecelia, gives me the impression of someone who is quite kind, if timid. Lastly, the maid Lydia gives off the same aura Cecelia does, but there's clearly a fire in her. Audiographs laden around from Havelock, Pendleton, and Piero indicate that these guys all clearly have their own separate interests in partaking of this conspiracy. Let's only hope that this doesn't interfere with my rescuing Emily. I end my day scavenging the area for this Piero can sell, and then head to bed wondering how exactly I'm going to pull off any assignments without leaving behind enough trace to get caught....

Thursday, May 23, 2013

“What a Terrible Accident” Let's Play Dishonored: Part 1: The Death of an Empress

Out of all of the games that were released Holiday 2012, none have kept my interest more than Dishonored, developed by Arkane Studios and published by Bethesda. During my initial two playthroughs of the game, I made note of how good the game was at allowing for players to make their own rule-sets and self-imposed restrictions on how they progress through the game. With that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to make use of this feature by starting a new challenge playthrough of Dishonored. Inspired by this video from PC Gamer, I will play with the aim of simulating a playthrough in which Corvo must carry out his assassinations while simultaneously leaving behind as little evidence as humanly possible, making it seem all the targets suffered unfortunate accidents. As a result, the rules of the challenge are as follows:

  • Use of weaponry is strictly prohibited. After all, they will leave behind trace evidence.
  • No enemies can be knocked out via Choke Holds or Sleep Darts. They will remember the experience of being knocked out, which will lead to the conclusion that an outside man was involved.
  • I am not allowed to be detected. If I finish the mission and the “Was Never Spotted” indicator is unchecked, I must restart the mission and try again.
  • Any kills made MUST look like an accident, or else have a sufficiently plausible explanation for why they occur outside of “An intruder/Corvo did it.”
    • For the purposes of this playthrough, Devouring Swarm is an acceptable means of dealing with enemies. Since Dunwall will be in the middle of a rat plague, most people are more likely to suspect bad luck when a man is devoured by rats then magical swarms of rats being summoned from the ether.
    • While I am allowed to use Windburst to arrange falls, this is something I am unlikely to do since the power itself, in my experience, has a way of drawing the attention of nearby enemies.
    • I am still trying to decide whether or not I should allow the use of Rewire Tools as a way to arrange for accidental kills. This is because I am unsure whether or not I should assume use of such tools would leave behind evidence of tampering. Feel free to chime in in the comments if you wish to leave an opinion one way or the other. Based on the consensus, I will adapt my playstyle accordingly.
    • I am also in the middle of deciding whether or not I should permit using choke holds and then throwing guards into the river, letting them drown or get eaten by fishes. Using the sword is out of the question because slash marks will be left behind, but should I assume that choking someone will leave evidence behind that detectives in Dunwall can discover with their current level of technology? I do not know the answer to the question.
  • I do not care about my level of chaos. Despite this, it is likely that I will be going for a Low Chaos game simply because there are only so many kills you can contribute to accidents.
Furthermore, I will be playing the game on Hard with the Health/Mana indicators, sneak icon, and Objective markers all turned off. The only things that will remain on are Heart markers and a simple crosshair for the purpose of aiming and to prevent motion sickness. Every time I want to see my Health/Mana, I will need to open my Inventory and inspect myself. In exchange for an immersive experience, it is a small price to pay. Lastly, these rules will not come into effect until after Corvo receives his powers from the Outsider. Until then, I will simply adhere to a Low Chaos/Ghost style, since the type of person who would have these codes of conduct would be a professional that keeps his work as clean as possible. Now that all of the background information has been laid out, let us begin.
I've spent the past few months at sea, petitioning neighboring regions to aid our lands in our time of need. My efforts have been... less than successful. And by that, I mean that every damn island in the area has decided to instead impose a quarantine on us until we beat the plague or die. My name is Corvo Attano, and I have the unfortunate task of telling my empress exactly how screwed we are. My good friend Geoff shoots the breeze at myself and a nearby guard, both of us with a sense of dejection from the complete lack of good news we return with. We dock through Sokolov's latest contraption and return to land.

As I cross the bridge, I am greeted by the pleasant sight to the heavily-implied result of my likely romantic relationship with the Empress, her/our daughter Emily. Well, truth be told she is my daughter, but Jessamine and I like to keep our love life private. I try to be a good father. Sadly, I can only be around for her so often, especially in these troubled times. She seems pleased to see me return in one piece. As eager a girl as she is, the very first questions she has are both about my trip and whether or not I will play a game of hide-and-seek with her. Since I haven't quite worked up the courage to deliver the news to my lady, I decide take Emily up on her offer. She takes my hand, and together we race down to the garden in order to start the game.

She begins the countdown and I take off. For most other people, hearing “10” would signal the start of some anticipation regarding whether or not they'll be found. I know better than that. The girl is... less than perceptive, so I use the same tactics I always use against her. That is, I quickly dart up a nearby staircase and crouch. For some reason, Emily has never once found me. I think it has something to do with this region's education system. During my many years as a resident here, originally hailing from a nearby island nation, I've found that the people have a crippling inability to look up or even really look around when searching for things. This knowledge has been critical in many of my late night “escapes” from the palace with the Empress. Everyone suspects that we're likely an item and there are absolutely no rules against it, but there's something about not outright stating it that both Jessamine and I both adore. Perhaps it's the mystique, but I digress.

After what seem to be only a few minutes, Emily gives up the “chase” and concedes. Now that my willpower has been restored, I finally decide to make my way towards my sweet... I mean, the empress. On my way up, I am greeted by High Overseer Baldy, whose portrait is being painted by Royal Physician/Artist/Inventor/Chauvinist/Disgusting Pig, Anton Sokolov. I never liked either of those two. They seem like the type of people who would gladly shake your hand while working the knife deep into your back. Ah well, they aren't really worth talking about, but since I've worked myself up by just thinking about them, I decide to take the wine off the table in some petty plot to ruin Sokolov's latest “masterpiece”. He has talent, don't get me wrong, but his genius is only outmatched by his own insufferably.

Feeling back in the groove, and satisfied that I've denied Sokolov and Baldy a bit of wine, I head up to the Empress to deliver my report. And that's when I come across the sad sight of Royal Spymaster Hiram Burrows, who I have come to call “Mole” as both a pun off his name and the way he tends to scurry about like a rat. I overhear him arguing with Jessamine over whether or not to help the sick people in the city. Y'know, I've always joked that if you tried to stab that guy in the heart, you'd find he doesn't have one. He says something as I pass but I never pay attention to him, especially not when he disrespects Jessy's authority like that. Speaking of my love, I finally see her again after my months since we've last seen each other, and I can feel both of our hearts skipping a beat. Before I grow weak in the knees, I am reminded of my duty, and hand her my report before my heart sinks so deep into my chest that even the jaws of life couldn't get it out.

Jessy, Emily, and I all stand together, as we try to figure out how to get our city out of this mess. Those thoughts are cut short as the ruthless gang of mysterious, masked strangers appear and begin their assault. I had just enough time to draw my weapon before they struck at us. As my blade lashed out at each assailant, I could feel their bodies vanish into thin air, taunting me. When the last one fled, we were ambushed by an even stronger duo. One of them was in a mask and I could barely get a glimpse of the other. If not for their black magic, I would've cut them both down. This was regrettably not my day, as I was levitated into the air and forced to watch as the unmasked man plunged the knife into my dear. Emily was taken by the other, and they both faded away. I managed to crawl my way to Jessy, but she didn't have long for this world, dying in my arms as she spoke her last.

When her life force had finally faded, Baldy and Mole approached us. The haste of their accusation astonished me. Against all logic and common sense, they both accused me of kidnapping Emily and murdering the Empress. It didn't take long to immediately begin suspecting them of being the real culprits. Nobody accuses someone of something that fast unless they have something to hide, and these two have always found a way to piss me off. In my anger and haste to extract revenge, I grew careless, and one lone guard managed to knock me out with the blunt of his sword. Thus began my half-year stint at Coldridge Prison.

I was subjected to the worst torture you could possibly imagine. You'd think the burns and the lashes were the painful part. Please, that crap is child's play. No, the real torture came from having to listen to Baldy and Mole drone on and on about how their obviously evil plan is so good for the city and how I should be happy to die for their petty power grab. I can barely stand being in the same general area with either one of these two for more than an hour, but six-months? That was some serious punishment and wasted time that I will never get back. I guess they though that I'd sign their “confession” if subjected to enough mental anguish that I became a madman. Fortunately, I spent most of the torture in my mental happy place, repeatedly shouting “I can't hear you, la la la la!” while I imagine pulling their teeth out with pliers as a crude form of payback. But since the next day is slated to be my execution, I'm going to die never getting the revenge I so richly deserve. Or so I think, until my meal arrives, with a special package....

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

#60: A Shocking Evolution, from System Shock 2 to Bioshock: Infinite

(Since many of these games are best known because of their various plot twists, I have decided to keep this article spoiler free for the benefit of those who have not yet played them.)
It has been awhile, has it not? I apologize for taking so long to write up a new piece. College has a way of keeping me busy. Now that I am back, it will be a delight to get back to what I do best: Talking about things most people simply do not care about. Over the interim since my last post, I was able to take some time and play Bioshock: Infinite, the Minerva's Den DLC from Bioshock 2, and System Shock 2, which is available now on both Steam and Good Old Games. My recent playthroughs of these games, along with my memory of the original Bioshock and its direct sequel, gave me enough material to analyze how game design has evolved over the years in the context of this series. This will be similar to my article comparing Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, except that the only real difference in this case will be time and technology available. These games were all directed by the same person, Ken Levine, and with similar design sensibilities, yet are all distinct in their own way. I feel this kind of analysis will be interesting, so without further ado:

Released in August 1999, System Shock 2 is, for better and worse, a product of its time. Taking place in the far future, where humanity has greatly advanced technologically to the point where we can replicate matter using nanomachines and travel at faster than light speeds, this game was unique for what it did. Although far from the first, System Shock 2 was one of the earliest noteable examples of genre blending, as it combined aspects from first-person shooters, survival horror games, and RPGs all in one package. The player was a simple soldier assigned to work on the starships Von Braun and Rickenbacker. One day, they wake up to find that the ships are under attack by some force that has assimilated many of the ship's crew. Together with Dr. Janice Polito, who provides support through remote guidance, the Soldier needs to survive and stop the madness before it can escape the two ships.
While the game controls like a typical shooter might, it also had much more than that. The Soldier had the ability to use Cybernetic Modules to upgrade his capabilities through the implants installed on his body. This functioned as a Western-style RPG might, giving players the choice between a number of stats and skills to upgrade and improve. However, just because the game lets players improve themselves did not mean that the Soldier would become overpowered as the game went on. Quite the opposite in fact: At any given moment in the game, unless the player was very conservative both in their methods of exploring the Von Braun and in the way they used their resources, a single bad encounter could bring a fully-healed and prepared character to critically damaged.
This is where the game's resource management comes in. Players have a finite amount of inventory space to carry items, so choosing what weapons and supplies to bring. Making sure that there was enough ammo in the inventory to use those weapons was a major factor separating success from failure. While it was fairly plentiful in some spaces, it could be used up just as quickly if players often failed to connect. Being left with a rusty old wrench, several broken weapons and not a lot of ammo is a very likely scenario. As a direct result of this, the gameplay was geared towards anticipation. A skilled player would need to learn how to read the environment and how to prepare for encounters so that when they happen, resource use is kept to an absolute minimum. Unlike a typical run-and-gun shooter, a high degree of planning was involved in keeping resources stocked, sneaking around enemies and striking them before being detected, and deciphering the level design so that chance battles are no longer surprising. Unless these actions were taken, players will find themselves wasting a lot of money at the resurrection stations scattered throughout the Von Braun. The atmosphere was tense and culminated in an game beloved and admired by the many for the way it blended genres together.
While this was all pretty good, it was far from perfect and many of the game's most noticeable flaws come from its heavily stat and numbers driven nature. The biggest of these issue is that there are many skills and stats that either prove to be practically useless or completely redundant. As an example of the former, one of the four primary weapon skills is energy weapons. These weapons take charge instead of ammo to use, however they are only effective against mechanical enemies. As a direct result of this, they become vastly outmatched by standard weaponry, which has access to both Anti-Personnel and Armor-Piercing ammo. This advantage gives standard weaponry the edge in the general case.
Examples of redundant skills are just as easy to point out. In a hypothetical scenario where the player wishes to specialize in hacking, the player would need to invest in both the Hacking skill and a stat called “Cyber-Affinity” while scouring the Von Braun for hacking software. In order to keep weapons in working order (because ranged weapons degrade as they are used), it is necessary to invest in Maintenance to keep them functioning, Repair in the event that they break and there are no replacements, and Modify if the player wishes to upgrade them and make them more effective. Even worse than having all these redundant skills for weapon handling, they are all also effected by the “Cyber-Affinity” stat, so players need to invest in that as well.
People who want to use “Psionics”, the games magic equivalent, have a similar problem. They not only need to place points in the “Psi” skill, but they also need to invest points to unlock each tier of Psionic abilities and invest further in each Psionic skill they want to unlock. To top it off, all the stats and skills I have described up to this point are all taken from the exact same pool of Cybernetic Modules. I am not against painful choices between what skills a given character should invest in. In fact, I think those kinds of choices are a boon to gaming. However, the sheer degree of redundancy of these skills is just baffling and can be extremely overwhelming to new players. Other problems in the game are, relatively speaking, minor. They include an entirely stat driven hacking game that is highly luck-based with no real skill on the player's part required (which is the same minigame used for repairing and modifying weapons) and a control interface that comes from a period where PC gaming was just beginning to adopt the standard WASD keyboard and mouse set-up. As a whole System Shock 2 took what would later go on to be Irrational Games in the right direction, even if it was far from perfect.

Unfortunately, releasing a spiritual successor to System Shock 2 took a shockingly long time. Fortunately, it arrived at just the right time to quickly become a critical and commercial darling in August 2007, 8 years later. As most of you are aware, Bioshock took many of the design sensibilities from System Shock 2 and modernized them in a way that kept the core design while making it more palatable to the average player. For the purpose of this article, I will ignore Bioshock 2 and its DLC (though Minerva's Den is worth checking out if you get the chance) because Ken Levine, the director of all the other games, was not at all involved in those projects. With that said, the original Bioshock moved the setting from the futuristic world of the Von Braun to another location in space/time. It took players to the 1940s, below the water's surface in an undersea city of Rapture. This city was touted as the ultimate paradise based (from what I have been told, extremely loosely, depending entirely upon your interpretation) on Ayn Randian Objectivism where all one needs to worry about is doing what they find to be the most profitable. The city of Rapture grew to become a massive hit with those who played the game as it gave off a constant feeling of oppression of both its overall layout and the sea submerging it from all sides.
Moving on to the gameplay side of things, Bioshock retained the element of choice that was present in System Shock 2, but played around with it a bit. The RPG-like system of stats and skills was replaced by Plasmids and Gene Tonics, which gave the protagonist special powers or passive bonuses respectively. This helped players define their own distinct playstyle separate from others by giving them a ton of different possible combinations of powers. As the game progressed, players could spend ADAM, the material that allows for all of the genetic modification that is running rampant in the undersea city, to purchase upgrades to Health and EVE (Mana), new slots to equip Plasmids and Gene Tonics, upgrades to already acquired Plasmids and Gene Tonics, and even brand new ones. The simplified customization scheme had the added bonus of eliminating all of the many redundancies and useless skills that plagued the RPG mechanics of System Shock 2. Instead of choosing between putting points into Hacking or Cyber-Affinity, players can now decide between making hacking easier by either slowing down the rate at which the hacking minigame (which is basically Pipe Dream) plays out ,reducing the number of bad spaces present in a given hack, improve the effects of hacked machines, or something else entirely. The seem can also be said of powers and weapons.
Speaking of weapons, skills like standard or energy weapons were also taken out in favor of a system in which the player is allowed to carry all of the game's different weapons at the same time and a finite amount of each type of ammo at every given time. Furthermore, weapons no longer break and can be upgraded at “Power to the People” station, removing the need to have the Modify, Maintenance and Repair skills. One of the things they kept for System Shock 2 was that every weapon has several various ammo types it can use, which adds to the strategy of the game. While the game certainly feels more like a shooter and less like an RPG than its spiritual predecessor, the resource management from the first game makes a return as ammo is still fairly hard to keep in stock and players need to keep track of the number of health kits and EVE hypos on their person, else they could end up in a very precarious situation. Because of this, the anticipatory gameplay of System Shock 2 is pretty much preserved in Bioshock and exploring any given area requires preparation and planning. A skilled player will be able to read the environment and begin to set up traps for encounters before they even happen while other players will find themselves dying often, being revived at the nearest Vita-Chamber with only a small amount of health and EVE. While revival is free, unlike in System Shock 2, it leaves the player at such a disadvantage that it is a state best left avoided if possible. Consequently, efficient usage of resources like health kits and money are still important.
As a whole, the game captured the overall feeling of System Shock 2 well while simplifying a lot of the more frivolous elements of the previous games, but there were still some major issues. One of the bigger issues involves the actual story of the game. Up until the point of the major plot twist of the game, the story was extremely good. However, passed that point, it seems to lose steam. A lot of what happens after that stops making sense and it appears that the plot is being artificially lengthened in order to conform to the standards we have for the length of a typical first-person shooter is supposed to be. Needless to say that seeing all the dramatic tension fall apart in the last third of the game is an incredible disappointment.
This feeds into the game's other issue, it's moral choice system. In the world of Rapture, there exist girls called Little Sisters, who are possessed by a sea slug and made to harvest ADAM from the corpses lying about the city. These girls are guarded by Big Daddies, genetically engineered and mutated humans encased in armored diving suits and made extraordinarily tough. While the battles with Big Daddies prove to be some of the best moments of the game, where planning and preparation become more important than ever, the resulting choice players get after the battle seem really dumb. After defeating one of the hulking monstrosities, the protagonist has the choice to either rescue the Little Sister from her fate by neutralizing the slug and taking a small amount of ADAM, or extracting the sea slugs, killing her and getting a larger portion of ADAM.
In theory, this means that the player needs to choose to either partake in the twisted economy of Rapture or reject it in favor of doing what is morally right. In practice, saving the girls is an objectively superior option because they give the protagonist favors like ADAM (which when added up, means the amount of ADAM obtained through rescuing the girls exceeds that gained through harvesting them) and unique Plasmids such as “Hypnotize Big Daddies” that are otherwise impossible to get. Even worse is that the ending changes entirely depending on whether or not players harvest even one Little Sister. What the player has done up to that point means nothing if even a single Little Sister gets harvested. This whole thing combines to result in a muddled and convoluted moral message that does not quite succeed. Despite this, Bioshock is a great example of how to bring old design sensibilities to new audiences will maintaining the core of what made them great.

Which brings us to more recent gaming history. In March 2013, almost 6 years after the release of the original Bioshock, Irrational Games released another brand new game that was, and is, a radical departure from previous games in their portfolio. Rather than return to the undersea “paradise” of Rapture, Irrational decided to turn back the clock to the 1920s and take it to the skies in the aerial city of Columbia. Founded on values of American exceptionalism combined with a quasi-religious worshiping of the founding fathers, Columbia is the vision of the ideal America as seen through the lens of the age it was built in, complete with the racism and the whole Captains of Industry vs Robber Barons debate present in the age. In this new rendition of Bioshock, the story clearly takes center stage. Without spoiling anything, the game takes this city and uses it as a backdrop for a more personal story that explores the Many-Worlds Interpretation in philosophy. In order to tell this tale, protagonist Booker DeWitt now has the distinction of being one of the only two protagonists in the series (the other one being the lead in Minerva's Den) to be a fully fleshed out character with a distinct personality. It is a story that begs players to think back on the events on the game and reflect upon the meaning of them. I have discussed this topic before in the podcast with Javy Gwaltney and Marc Price, so to speak further on that front would be redundant. Needless to say, it was excellent.
Gameplay-wise, it is strangely held back by the expectations set forth by previous games while paradoxically tossing aside many of the elements that are core to the series. One of the biggest examples of this are the Vigors, drinks Booker can consume in order to gain magic powers, function almost exactly like Plasmids did in previous games, except that there are only 8 of them and DeWitt can have all of them available at once. And instead of Gene Tonics, players were treated to the “Gear” system, which enables them to equip a hat, shirt, pants, and boots that all confer passive bonuses. Altogether, these elements result in the removal of much of the customization in the game because now Booker has access to all of the Vigors and does not have to choose which ones he will equip. Furthermore, the reduction to only 4 pieces of gear means that players will not be too distinct from each other, since only 4 choices are being made as opposed to many different painful choices. The decisions to make are still there, but no where near as noticeable as they used to be. At the same time, the Vigors and Gear feel far too fantastical to belong in Columbia. It seems like the Vigors do not serve much of purpose beyond giving Booker powers, as few of the denizens of Columbia actually use them at all. The same can also be said of the gear, as there is no real rational explanation for a shirt that causes an enemy to combust when hit by a melee attack.
The weaponry also dramatically changed. Instead of being able to hold all of the weapons at once or as many as the player can fit in an inventory, the game imposed a restriction of two weapons at any given time. This would theoretically force players to make choices as to which weapons they will bring with them. In actuality, the result was that players used whatever weapons they could find in a given combat zone and no others. The frustration this causes is compounded by the upgrade system, where players can choose to spend money to upgrade all versions of a given weapon they ever acquire. If the combat zone a player is fighting in does not have a copy of any of the weapons he/she has chosen to upgrade, they are out of luck as those upgrades will no longer be able to help them in the battle.
And speaking of money, the resource management that has so far been a staple was toned down significantly. The only resources the player can gather are money, ammo, and lockpicks, which co-protagonist Elizabeth can use to pick various locks across the city. Players no longer store health and salt kits. Instead they are consumed upon collection, and cannot be picked up when their respective gauges are full. Money is used to buy supplies like health, salt, and ammo, along with upgrades to both weapons and Vigors. Booker will never have enough money to pay for every single upgrade, so the choice comes back, slightly, in the form of which upgrades will players take. As for lockpicks, players will find more than enough lockpicks to pick every single lock in the game with 20-25 left over. It would have been interesting to be forced into choosing if and when to unlock containers, but sadly the game does not do that. When combined with the new addition of regenerating shields, this means that there is little to no incentive to scour the field for items beyond purchasing upgrades.
And this leads well into the biggest issue people have with the game, the anticipatory nature of the combat of previous games has been replaced with combat that is more reactionary. Instead of silently exploring, taking the time and prepare and plan their approach, players will often find themselves running into combat zones full of enemies ready and willing to shoot DeWitt on sight. The aforementioned regenerating shields, like those in Halo or Borderlands, are a huge change to reflect this new paradigm. The other one is the co-protagonist Elizabeth, who will regularly toss Booker items during combat such as health, salts, ammo, and money. This combines to form a much more aggressive game than ever before. The absence of resource management and tough choice, together with the generally more aggressive style of play transformed this latest entry, for better or worse, into more of a shooter than the franchise has ever been before.

And so ends my analysis of the “Shock Series”. The purpose of this article was merely to outline the way it has changed over the course of its lifetime. I have no desire to persuade you into thinking that any one of these games is better than the others. Although I personally like the original Bioshock the most, (System Shock 2 felt too convoluted and Infinite was far too simple) there are clear merits to all of the games that Ken Levine has led development on. I leave the final decision as to which one is best up to all of you. I have given you all my analysis on it, and doubtless you have your own. Feel free to tell me what you think of the series and the way its changed over time. I look forward to further discussions on it because, if anything, these games are great for starting a good conversation. Take care guys, it is good to be back! :)