Tag Archives: bioshock

Video Game Anniversaries That Will Occur in 2017


I really like doing these lists of upcoming anniversaries as my first blog post of each year. Doing the light research is a pretty fun trip back through gaming history, so here we go: Continue reading

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[Game Awards 2016] So What Is Prey?

Like usual I pretty much skipped this year’s Game Awards and just caught the trailers as they appeared. I thought they looked pretty great. I’m hyped for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I’m not sure yet what to think of Mass Effect: Andromeda, I’d really like to get a better sense of that game’s scale. I’m not going to say anything about Death Stranding until I see an actual game being played. The one game I actually have something to say on though is Prey.

Based on Game Informer’s nine-minute demo, Prey looks like it could be a terrific game of a type we haven’t seen in a long time, but it might be tough for some people to figure out why. Continue reading

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More Games Should Have Limited Inventory Systems


Usually I’m in lock step with complaints about how retail games from disparate genres have become increasingly homogeneous these days, but the inventory screen is one thing I actually wish was another part of the generally-accepted concoction. It and the itemization of objects it brings gives players more to think about and makes a game’s world seem deeper. Continue reading

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Irrational Games: From Simulators To Games

Hey, I bought something on a Steam sale and was able to finish it immediately. In this case it was both episodes of BioShock Infinite: Burial At Sea. Looking at the BioShock games alongside their main predecessor has got me thinking again about this whole “game versus simulator,” difference.

Picking up System Shock 2 again, then the first BioShock, then Infinite and its DLC, I’m still trying to figure out exactly why the earliest game feels so different from the BioShock games despite their almost complete congruence in gameplay. I don’t think it’s the action-oriented focus of BioShock, but rather its fantastical level design.

The BioShock games are definitely faster-paced and more shooter-oriented than System Shock. It’s like comparing Resident Evil 4 to the original Resident Evil. In System Shock I usually slowly creep through every corridor, checking every corner for enemies and diligently checking every container for resources. In BioShock I pretty much just run through the environments blasting people while mashing keys to rummage through boxes. System Shock’s inventory definitely slows the game down by making you consider what resources you keep.

The thing is, I’ve played action-oriented shooters that still err on the “simulator” side of the pendulum. The first Crysis and GoldenEye are good examples I constantly reference. 3D Realms’ Build engine games — Duke Nukem 3D and Shadow Warrior are great candidates too. All of them are fast-paced games where you spend most of your time shooting the crap out of things, but the difference is you’re shooting the crap out of things in environments that feel logically and believably planned out. They feel as if the designers built regular places first, then built video game goals around them.

Then you’ve got 1999 Mode and 1998 Mode in Infinite and its DLC. Those hardcore difficulty modes significantly slow down the pace of Burial to something very similar to System Shock. Having barely any resources in the first part of Burial forces you to slowly creep through areas, carefully consider every shot you take, and thoughtfully search containers. Part two’s 1998 mode successfully feels like a lite version of Thief where you have to observe your environment and make economical use of your tools. Basically, those modes make BioShock feel less like an action game, but to me they still don’t feel quite like System Shock.

That’s not against BioShock at all. BioShock will always feel like BioShock because it’s designed to be a different kind of game for a wider audience. It’s a first person shooter, while System Shock is much closer to an RPG. In a way it’s apples-to-oranges, but it’s still an interesting comparison when the apple and orange have almost the same gameplay mechanics.

The huge difference I notice is in the level design between System Shock, and BioShock. Somehow, System Shock got me to almost believe I was exploring an actual space ship where people live and work. Rapture and Columbia do not feel like actual cities where people live and work, but rather game levels with set dressing.

Let’s take objectives between the games as an example. Late in part two of Burial you’re sent to grab an object you’re told is in a lab. This involves traveling through a linear chain of areas to find the object in a special location at the end of that veritable tunnel after a lot of scripted story sequences. System Shock 2 has a somewhat similar part where you have to find an object, but it’s among a bunch of similar things, and you have to identify it by its number. All you have to guide you is an audio recording telling you the number of the thing you need to find, what room it’s in, and what shelf it’s on. Basically, you have to think through that environment the same way someone would if they were really there.

Maybe it’s because of the nature of each place. It’s fairly easy to imagine what kinds of places a ship like the one in System Shock would contain: crew quarters, medical, engineering, etc. It’s probably not extremely difficult to plan those kinds of places out to feel real. Rapture and Columbia on the other hand are inherently fantastical concepts — a city at the bottom of the ocean and a city in the sky respectively. They lend themselves immediately to abstract level design.

If you ask me, I think Rapture and Columbia would have lent themselves well to full-blown open world RPG design. Ultima Underworld is actually a pretty good example of an alternative possibility for BioShock. The game that influenced the whole “Shock” series puts you in the buried ruins of a failed utopia as well, but just about every character in it can be interacted with in some way. With clear differentiations between “normal,” “upset,” or “hostile,” people, it feels like a place full of people, and more importantly rival communities you have to navigate through exploration and conversation. I guess Fallout New Vegas is quite similar as a modern example. An approach like this could have made Rapture and Columbia far more “live” as settings, even with fast-paced shooting, but that’s just my opinion.

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LTTP: Ultima Underworld the Stygian Abyss


As I continue through an absolutely massive backlog of unplayed games, this fall I finally decided to arrive at the very beginning of one of today’s most popular genres in video games. For a game I only found out existed maybe two years ago, Ultima Underworld comes off as a forgotten nexus of 3D game design fundamentals from a lost era of innovation.

I may have noted it before, but the 1992 Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss is the reason we have games like BioShock and Elder Scrolls. Even Demon’s Souls might owe its existence to this game. It’s credited with basically inventing the 3D first person RPG hybrid genre… except it was created around the same time first person shooters were really getting started.

When I first checked this game out I assumed it would use a whole lot of 2D trickery to approximate what you would see in Skyrim 19 years later. What I got was what looked like a full-fledged RPG running on the original DOOM’s graphics. I like playing old school DOOM partly because I have a thing for ultra-simplistic 3D graphics, and Underworld let’s me explore a whole world of secrets, characters, and open-ended tactics with that kind of visual style. What’s amazing about this is that it came out a few months before Wolfenstein 3D, and about a year before DOOM popularized first person games.

The game has players cast into a massive failed underground society filled with opposing factions, bartering with each faction in order to explore the levels and eventually track down a missing girl — BioShock 15 years before BioShock basically. The eight levels of the Stygian Abyss are the forerunners to the districts of Rapture and the decks of Dead Space’s USG Ishimura.

The deal with Underworld though is that it’s actually an incredibly dynamic game, even by modern standards. Most NPCs can be bargained with, doors can be broken down, and as soon as you start the game there are already multiple directions in which you can travel. Bits of information strewn about the environment inform you on how you can deal with certain characters to gain their favor in a dynamic conversation system (including learning a fictional language). Underworld feels every bit as systemic and complex as Fallout 3 and Skyrim do today, with most of the fundamental mechanics of those games in-place.

A crucial difference though is that Underworld gives you virtually none of the information that game designers today probably consider critical. No objective markers, no reminders, no hint popups, no damage indicators, no tutorial (except the manual), etc. All the game gives you is an auto map… with no icons. What you DO get though is the ability to type down notes on top of the map. The game expects YOU to manually record every single piece of information you get.

So what you have here is proof of how little 3D role-playing games have actually advanced in the last 21 years. I would say the main difference between then and now is interface, because I can’t ignore here how archaic Underworld’s controls feel. It’s a game from before the era of mouse-look and standard FPS controls, so it has its own weird system for moving around. Interacting with everything requires different “modes” to be clicked on and so forth. The whole thing was a learning experience I spent a day reading manuals just to figure out. It makes the pace of this game much slower than its descendants. This is the only reason I’d suggest caution before buying Underworld on GoodOldGames if you’re a purely modern gamer.

The thing is though, I end up liking a lot of old school games despite certain aged aspects because they tend to have other qualities modern games might lack. They might feel simpler, more intuitive, or just plain better-designed than today’s hand-holding experiences. This is certainly true if you compare Underworld to BioShock for instance, but I’m not sure if this game is better than Arx Fatalis in a 1:1 comparison.

I haven’t played Arx in about a year, but thinking back it feels like a legit polishing of Underworld’s design with more modern interface trappings. Arx was basically supposed to be Underworld 3 (even one of Underworld’s original designers worked on it), just without the license, and it definitely feels like Underworld but running on Halo Combat Evolved graphics instead of DOOM graphics. All I’m saying is, if you want the kind of experience Underworld offers but can’t get past how ancient the game looks and feels, Arx is the closest modern equivalent. If even that feels too old, then I don’t know man. Dark Souls maybe?

What get’s to me is how DOOM ended up becoming the game that got all the fame for popularizing first person games when Underworld was far more complex and beat DOOM to the market by a year. Maybe it’s in fact because of the complexity — maybe the mass audience just wanted a simple shooter to deal with the jump to 3D. It’s probably because DOOM was shareware for two years and the Underworld developers didn’t get a deal for a Windows version (the GOG version runs on DOSBOX).


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Why Today’s Gamer Should Play System Shock 2


If you haven’t heard at least a little bit of commotion about it, GoodOldGames just got the first digital re-release of one of the most celebrated PC games of all time. System Shock 2 is more than just a popular thing for PC gamers though. It’s probably one of the most important games in relation to today’s console landscape as well.

If you ever enjoyed relatively recent games like BioShock, Deus Ex Human Revolution, Dishonored, Dead Space, or Fallout 3, you probably owe it to yourself to buy System Shock 2. The current console generation has seen the popularization of what some like to call the “first person simulation RPG” genre — games like the ones I just mentioned that combine elements of first person shooters with RPGs in extremely detailed worlds. SS2 definitely did not invent this style of game (that credit probably goes to Ultima Underworld), but it’s usually considered to be the best example of it, and I would agree.

If you still don’t really know what SS2 is, it is the direct predecessor to BioShock, having been made largely by the same team. The first Dead Space game also probably owes its existence to SS2 (rumors abound that it was originally going to be System Shock 3). Now some might take this to mean that SS2 is a less-advanced version of BioShock or interesting to play merely as a history lesson on where BioShock’s ideas came from. SS2 however is largely considered to be the better game, and I would also agree on that.

PC elitists might tell you that BioShock is basically the same games as SS2 but dumbed-down for console gamers, that SS2 still has much deeper gameplay and is still scarier despite outdated graphics. That stuff might be true in a manner of speaking. BioShock is definitely a much more action-focused game. SS2 has almost the exact same gameplay mechanics, but is balanced much more heavily towards role-playing and survival horror.

At the beginning of the game you choose a general development path for your character: guns, hacking, or psionics (basically plasmids). You can dabble in all three throughout the game. Experience points are either discovered as items or doled out for completing objectives (this even has a strong connection with the story), so you can’t grind and you really have to watch where you spend them.

This goes into SS2’s heavier emphasis on resource management. Unlike BioShock and more like Human Revolution, you have an actual limited inventory in SS2, and it seems like resources are almost always scarce, especially later in the game. There were several points where I was about sure I’d wasted too much to have a chance at beating the game and nearly decided to start over. I think it was that feeling of constantly being on my last reserves, more than anything else, that made every enemy encounter scary in this game. That’s what a survival horror game is supposed to do.

It would not be a stretch to call SS2 a Resident Evil RPG on a space ship, and people who miss the original structure of that franchise might want to give this game a chance too.


However, there is one reason above all others why I prefer SS2 over BioShock — how much better the former is at immersing players in its world.

People lauded BioShock for how it presented its world to players in ways console gamers had never seen, but I still think it fell a step short of its predecessor, mainly due to the way it handled its heads up display and conveyed information to the player. BioShock did it basically the same way every game does these days, but that’s exactly the problem with most games these days.

When a character calls me over the radio and tells me where to go, I don’t need the game to then give me an objective marker on the map or a waypoint arrow. If I need to be reminded of what to do, I can just refer back to audio recordings. I don’t need the proper object or switch to glow in front of me, not when the in-game environment is as well-realized as BioShock’s.

In SS2 you get some orders over your radio describing a place and a goal, you look on your map for that place, and simply go there. Signs and other descriptors that would guide any normal person in that environment are enough for you to find your way. Irrational managed to create a world in SS2 that feels so natural and lived-in that you can navigate it as you would if you were really there.

Every time I talk about SS2 I like to talk about the one moment that totally sold me on the game: There’s a section where you need to modify a computer by replacing a circuit board. After a voice recording tells me the registration number of the board I need, I go find the room where it’s supposed to be, expecting a small room where the correct board is the only movable object. What I get is a massive library — several stacks filled with circuit boards, each one able to be picked up and placed in my inventory. When I had to look at the registration number of each individual board until I found the right one, I said to myself “this isn’t a collection of levels anymore, this is a real place.”

SS2’s entire world is built like this. BioShock’s is too, but the difference is that the newer game covers that well-realized world in a bunch of assistance icons instead of trusting the gamer to immerse himself in it. Oh BioShock lets you turn most of that stuff off, but not enough of it in my opinion.

Ultimately, what these kinds of games are all about is immersion — building not a series of levels, but something that feels like an actual simulated environment, with a story that takes place entirely within that environment. That’s why people call them “simulation RPGs.” When it comes to that task, I don’t think any game has done it better than System Shock 2.

Actually Playing the Game

If you’re timid about loading up what may look like such a complex PC game, or maybe have heard some stories about the complexities of running it, you really shouldn’t worry.

For starters, no one should worry about getting this to run on their weak laptop or whatever. SS2 was built for 1999 computers — I’m confident that ANY Windows system built within the last decade will run it without issue. There were issues with getting it to run on modern versions of Windows, but the latest GOG release just cleared all that up. Basically anyone now should be able to buy the game and start playing without a hitch.

Don’t try to play it with a controller though. The inventory system alone ensures that ain’t gonna happen. The whole game is very reliant on having a mouse.

All those things you see now for things like “rebirth” or “SSTool,” are just mods to improve the game beyond the original release. You don’t REALLY need that stuff unless you want the graphics looking a little bit better.

Oh, and SS2 has four-player online co-op through the main storyline.

Lastly, if you actually do check out SS2 and like it, then you have little-to-no excuse to also check out the original Deus Ex (which also has a PS2 version available on PSN), Arx Fatalis (from the guys that made Dishonored), and the Thief games (which a lot of people say Dishonored ripped off).

And no, you don’t need to track down the original System Shock before playing SS2. The story mostly stands on its own, and the original SS game doesn’t hold up nearly as well from what I hear.


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