Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Xbox 360 review: Bioshock 2

Flashback to New Year’s Eve, 1958. It is a very short while before the midnight attacks at the Kashmir Restaurant, and Delta and his companion Little Sister, Eleanor Lamb, begin their rounds searching for ADAM. Eleanor, being a playful child, decides to run off ahead, but is cornered by Splicers. She screams for help, and Delta rushes to her rescue, making mince meat of all but one of the Splicers, who manages to throw a Hypnotize plasmid at Delta. Sofia Lamb then appears, reminding Delta that Eleanor is in fact her daughter and not his, despite what his conditioning has taught him. Sofia then instructs Delta to remove his helmet, put a pistol to his head, and pull the trigger. The last thing Delta witnesses is Eleanor screaming “DADDY!” before he blacks out. Then the ominous Bioshock 2 logo appears.

Thus is the beginning of 2K’s sequel to their 2007 smash-hit Bioshock. Players can now finally return to the dystopian city that Andrew Ryan built. The 1940s and 50s art style is still present, though much of the city has been reclaimed by the ocean. The levels are all new – no area has returned from the first game. Each of these new areas is largely a retooled version of a level from the first game (Fort Frolic has been altered to become Dionysus Park, Apollo Square has become Pauper’s Drop, and Hephaestus has become Persephone). However, these new areas are different enough that they don’t feel like a rehash, only as if there is something hauntingly familiar about them. And yes, the soundtrack follows a similar pattern, combining both Garry Schyman’s original compositions with songs of the time period, including Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare”, Todd Rollin’s “The Boogie Man”, and Eddy Duchin’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”.

Though Jack was technically tied to Rapture, he played the role of an outsider looking in. As Delta, you are a Big Daddy who – despite his free will – has lost everything and is left only with a desire to seek out his former Little Sister, Eleanor. As such, the story is less about discovering Rapture as a whole. Bioshock 2 begins with the presumption that you have played the first game and gets off the ground much more quickly than the first game. One of the largest focuses of Bioshock 2 is the Big Daddy-Little Sister relationship. As a liberated Big Daddy, Delta is both directly linked to this and removed from it, as he is no longer attached to his Little Sister.

Your guide this time around is Augustus Sinclair, a character who was only briefly mentioned in the first game. He is a businessman who wanted to capitalize on everything he could during Rapture’s heyday. Since the Civil War and Sofia Lamb’s takeover, Sinclair has been trying his best to survive. When he pairs up with Delta, he leaves the moral choice fork-in-the-road segments up to the player, as opposed to Atlas and Tenenbaum’s attempts to sway Jack in regards to the Little Sisters in the first game. While Delta’s choice to harvest or rescue the Little Sisters does affect the final outcome of the game, players are also responsible for determining the fates of three normal human characters as the story progresses.

This is a game that is just as blood-spattered and violent as the first. An M-rating is only fitting. And while the conflicting ideals of Ryan and Fontaine are not central to the story this time around, the material in Bioshock 2 is still a lot to stomach for anyone younger than 17 years old. 2K has weaved together a fantastic story and it will undoubtedly make evoke emotions from players. The entire mood of the game is incredibly melancholy and quite frankly depressing at times. As brilliant as the first game was, it simply cannot compare to the emotions conveyed in Bioshock 2.

With the first game, players were exposed to a human vs. human conflict between Ryan and Fontaine. Players were meant to determine for themselves which of the two characters was the lesser evil, if either was better off at all. In the sequel, who is good and who is evil is more heavily implied (though still not explicitly stated). By the end of the game (or perhaps only a few hours in if they are skeptical enough), players will be convinced that Sofia Lamb is desperate and insane.

With all that in mind, the story isn’t nearly as complex. True, much of the underlying politics between key characters is left unexposed until the last few levels of the game. In fact, Delta’s true identity isn’t even touched on in the slightest until roughly ten hours into the game. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, as it allows more time to focus on and develop the other characters. But the true identity of Delta will understandably not offer as great of a plot twist as the true identity of Jack did in the first game.

A large part of Bioshock’s story came from the sequences in which players were unable to interact with Jack, and the fact that any given cutscene was carried out from a first-person perspective. That is still the case in Bioshock 2, and the non-interactive sequences deal out some excellent shock value.

The side stories players can discover through audio diaries cover a much broader spectrum than in the first game, and offer some unusual perspectives on the game's events. Delta's story is the main focus of the game, and the conclusion of the game will likely spark some controversy among fans.

Though Bioshock 2 uses the same Unreal engine as its predecessor, there are many noticeable changes. The graphics have been updated, but don’t sacrifice the merging of real world with cartoon-style that was introduced in the first game. The AI has undergone drastic alterations and the game is both more challenging and more immersive because of this. Though Delta is able to fire his plasmids and weaponry at the same time, this increase in power is balanced by increasing the number of enemies he encounters at any given time. Hacking has been retooled and now uses a timed minigame involving a moving bar and various colored areas, as opposed to the previous pipe puzzle minigame. While it does move much more smoothly than the pipe game, this new style of hacking can leave players exposed to enemy attacks, as it plays out in real-time.

The plasmid powers available in Bioshock 2 aren’t much different from those in the first game, save for one notable exception in the last level. As players acquire more ADAM, however, they can upgrade the plasmids, which will in turn alter the way they work. For example, the Electro-shock plasmid will jump to multiple enemies when upgraded to the third and final level.

In Bioshock, players were encouraged to build up their ammo and EVE hypo reserves before engaging a Big Daddy. Considering players now control a Big Daddy, these particular fights aren’t quite as challenging or spectacular. True, the newest Big Daddy type, the Rumbler, will deal out more pain to players than the Bouncer or the Rosie. But the most impressive fights come from two events very closely knit with the main story. The first are the Big Sister fights, which occur directly after either harvesting or rescuing the last Little Sister in any given level. While a Big Sister’s health is comparable to that of a Big Daddy, she is significantly faster and more agile, often latching on to Delta’s helmet and punching him in the visor. The second challenging battle sequence arises from a Little Sister gather. Delta can adopt the Little Sisters associated with the other Big Daddies in order to have them extract ADAM from corpses around Rapture. When a gather sequence occurs, players will be met by an onslaught of Splicers until the Little Sister completes her extraction. As the game progresses, players can utilize trap rivets, hacked security bots, the cyclone trap plasmid combined with other plasmids, and miniature auto-turrets to fortify the radius around the Little Sister.

One of the largest selling points for the sequel is the inclusion of online multiplayer. Included are deathmatch and team deathmatch modes, known as Survival of the Fittest and Civil War respectively. Also included are Capture the Sister (a clever spin on the traditional capture the flag), ADAM Grab and Team ADAM Grab (both keep-away variants), Last Splicer Standing, and Turf War (where players compete for territorial control).

The multiplayer mode allows players to choose from a host of characters specifically designed for this new mode. Players can customize their plasmid and weapon loadout, as well as unlock gene tonics as they level up. The level-up system will allot points to a player even if they aren’t victorious in a round - they will just earn significantly less in experience points than a player on the winning team. The multiplayer also has a story mode woven into it, chronicling the events of the selectable characters during Rapture’s Civil War.

Overall, the multiplayer works very well. It feels similar to Team Fortress 2, unsurprisingly as both games use derivatives of the Havok gaming engine. Although players can utilize the Big Daddy suit during certain points in a round, it will allot the user greater damage resistance in exchange for use of their plasmids. As such, the Big Daddy still is a force to be reckoned with, but doesn’t feel overpowerful so long as the other players are smart when they attempt to take him down.

Bioshock 2 is a fitting sequel in every way. It can never replace the original, and it doesn’t try to. Instead it offers a new story from a new perspective and gives players a truly gratifying experience. Every improvement made in the sequel shines through brilliantly, while the mechanics that were left untouched flow just as fluidly as ever. I am glad that 2K pushed the game back from its original November 2009 release to February of 2010, as nearly everything was fine-tuned to perfection. Players can delve deeper into the mystery and horror that lurks in the halls of Rapture and experience some of the most solid gameplay available on this generation’s consoles.

My rating: 9.5 (out of 10)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Anime review: Ergo Proxy

I’m a huge fan of sci-fi entertainment, from video games, to comic book, to novels and films. I’ve even more intrigued by the dystopian sci-fi subgenre. It happened by chance that I was browsing through YouTube’s officially hosted shows and came across a series called Ergo Proxy. I was sold on the first few episodes, but I wondered just how strong this series could remain.

Ergo Proxy draws a great deal of inspiration from the literary works of Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot” and George Orwell’s “1984”, while feeling similar in both theme and mood to Aeon Flux and The Matrix. The series begins in the domed city of Romdo, wherein citizens live out relatively normal lives with the comforting knowledge that they are safe from the diseases and savage people who live outside. But Re-L Mayer, granddaughter of Romdo’s regent, is running her own secret investigation of Romdo’s past and the god-like entities known as proxies. Though still a prominent figure over the course of the series, the first few episodes somewhat ‘trick’ viewers into believing Re-L is the main character.

The lead role is instead given to a young man known as Vincent Law, an immigrant from the Mosque dome. Vincent is a simple worker in Romdo’s undercity who is working towards earning his privilege to be considered a ‘fellow citizen’ and be looked upon as an equal among Romdo’s higher class inhabitants. Unfortunately, Vincent gets caught up in the mystery of the proxies, is targeted by Romdo’s defense force as a threat to their stability, and narrowly escapes Romdo with his life.

The final major character of the series is Pino, a rather obvious nod to Pinocchio. Pino is a companion type auto-reiv (robotic assistants to the humans) who becomes infected with the cogito virus. The virus leads Pino to believe she has a soul, and as the series progresses Pino begins to understand human intricacies such as emotions, imagination, and curiosity.

The series is very moody, but isn’t quite as dark and violent as it tries to sell itself as. This isn’t a bad thing by any means, as it allows the character and plot development time to flesh out. That said, the fight sequences are phenomenal and never feel repetitive. The characters encounter many proxies along the way, but none of them are quite the same, utilizing different powers to their advantage. Some of the proxies use psychological warfare as opposed to physical attacks, and a select few are even shown to be compassionate. The fact that the proxies are trying to live in a human world and are often viewed more as resources than beings makes their dislike of the humans understandable. Some of the proxies are driven to the brink of insanity, becoming even less human than the humans themselves.

Ergo Proxy is rather atypical compared to many sci-fi anime I have watched in the past, as there is no explicitly stated good or evil force. Rather, it is up to the viewer to decide who was right and wrong in the end, and as such viewers will likely come to different conclusions based on the events therein. The end of the series is the only section that really breaks this mold, attempting to bring some straightforward Biblical references into play. While these still work with the story well enough, they don’t seem to fit in as coherently with the other overarching themes of the series. It’s a minor detraction at worst, though.

As for the flow of the story, it only slows down at a few points in order to explain back-story on characters or to strengthen the characters’ relationships with one another. There are moments in the series where viewers are deliberately caught off guard by plot twists. The episode titled “Ophelia” will have viewers witnessing the many possibilities of the characters’ fates. The old man in “Anamuneshisu” breaks the fourth wall, drawing viewers in as part of the experience, and whether or not he is a proxy or simply a manifestation of Vincent’s mind is left completely ambiguous.

While all of this can be very intriguing, the series is not without its flaws. While Ergo Proxy prevents itself from running in circles, there are a few episodes that feel as if they belong in another anime entirely. “Who wants to be in Jeopardy” is meant to provide some blatant foreshadowing, but the way it goes about doing this seems monotonous and out of place. “Eternal Smile” is somewhat more fitting, focusing on Pino’s imagination and growing emotional spectrum. But it is still a large shift into a cartoon-style and childish world from the cyberpunk dystopia that has been well established by the time “Eternal Smile” rolls around.

Ergo Proxy’s soundtrack combines more traditional orchestrated pieces with electronic and heavy percussion sounds. The result is an accompanting soundtrack that is incredibly unique and creates a surprisingly diverse number of sounds. The art design is hauntingly beautiful, though some viewers may be turned off by the constant browns and dark grays, as it is often difficult to see exactly what is going on at times. The series does a fantastic job of bringing new ideas into the mix of a genre often filled with rehashed storylines. For an anime rated TV-MA, Ergo Proxy does a fantastic job of balancing intricate fight sequences with post-modern ideologies and political unrest.

My rating: 9 (out of 10)
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