Trailblazer lost

The culprit: Uru: Ages beyond Myst (PC, Mac)

Hut in the skyI don’t think I will ever understand what possessed the makers of Myst to think that a multiplayer entry in the series was a good idea. Maybe this is just my inherent dislike of multiplayer speaking, but I’ve always considered the Myst series as the epitome of a personal gaming experience. Most of your time is spent exploring, gawking at scenery and thinking, and a great part of the appeal, at least to me, is being alone in a strange, otherworldly place, with just your wits to help you. There’s no combat and nothing that would be facilitated by the presence of another player. I guess you could bounce ideas off another person to solve puzzles, but the chances of you meeting a random player who hasn’t figured the puzzles out yet and is willing to team up to do so are slim at best. So what’s left? Sightseeing together? Surely you don’t need to create a whole game for that.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who thought so, as Uru: Ages beyond Myst, the fourth entry in the Myst series released in 2003, also proved to be its eventual death toll. The sales were so poor that they started Cyan Worlds, the developer, on a downward slope: the company almost closed in 2005, upon release of the final game in the series, Myst V, appropriately subtitled End of Ages. One of the main criticisms was that the online part of Uru…didn’t actually ship with the single-player version. The multiplayer content got delayed and eventually cancelled in 2004 due to a lack of subscribers, with the result that only the beta testers were ever allowed to try it out and sample what additional storyline there was. This was a massive failure of judgement on the developers’ part, which the release of the available online content as expansion packs barely mitigated. Some of the beta testers kept up their unofficial servers going, but they were unstable and didn’t feature any new content. Cyan got back on its feet somewhat in 2006, at which point content was gradually added until 2008, when more financial problems forced the game to go offline yet again, leaving the storyline in limbo. Finally, in 2010, Cyan released the source files free of charge, so that fans would be able to create their own content, and is now relying on donations to maintain the servers. The previously online-exclusive ages can now be played offline as well, with some help from a fan-made program called Drizzle.

Pink and blueParadoxically enough, fan support is the only thing that has kept Uru afloat throughout this snafu; they may not have been numerous, but they certainly were dedicated. All I really wanted was access to the online-only ages, and, with the latest resurrection of the online version, my wishes were finally granted. But was it worth it? I’m not sure. The ages are fun to experience, some are beautifully designed and some feature genuine brain-teasers as puzzles, but, overall, Uru distinctly feels like a lame duck. It suffers greatly by comparison with the previous entries in the series, as well as with its immediate successor, Myst IV. First of all, pre-rendered environments are gone, which dramatically affects the quality of the graphics. It’s not that it’s bad, but when you’re used to photorealistic detail, things in Uru feel a bit…plasticky, for lack of a better word. Secondly, the fact that you get to design an avatar for yourself also changes the game’s perspective. You can play in first-person view, but some puzzles are much easier in third-person. Besides, what’s the point of spending time and effort designing an avatar if you don’t see it in action? Lastly, and most importantly, the storyline that Uru introduces–to be continued in Myst V–is heavy on bizarre mysticism and only very tangentially related to Atrus’ history, another pillar of the Myst series, even though it features his daughter, Yeesha. So even after jumping through all the hoops necessary to experience a semblance of a coherent story and gaming experience, you might be left with a bitter taste in your mouth.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

We’re not in Kansas anymore

The culprit: Baldur’s Gate II (PC, Mac)

Empty heartReleased in 2000, two years after its predecessor wowed the gaming community, Baldur’s Gate II faced the difficult task of being a direct sequel to a massive hit. And while some of the choices it makes are questionable (notably in terms of reducing exploration and a weaker villain), the end result is still largely successful, and the game has, nowadays, become more popular than Baldur’s Gate. The basics still apply: the setting is the same, the mechanics are the same, and the storyline picks up right where the first game ended, albeit on a significantly darker note. The game is still vast and involved, and contains extensive dialogue that may make modern-day players hesitate. However, the interface has been updated and the class system refined, with three new additions and kits for every other existing class. Combat has been made more strategic and more difficult. Moreover, the cast has been streamlined, even though some characters make a comeback from the first game. This is, however, a case of favouring quality over quantity, as the existing characters have a lot more interaction with each other and are more fleshed out. What’s more, this is the first BioWare game to introduce romances, which add more depth to interaction and have become one of the company’s trademarks. Although, I’d say that the most charismatic members of the cast are still returning characters from BG.

Other than that, the game has both a grander scope and a tighter focus: instead of roaming about countless outdoor areas with little to differentiate them and next to no motivation to do so besides curiosity–although this may be the very definition of adventure for some–, the action is now set in several large locations and seldom wanders outside of them. The plot also involves greater stakes, since the protagonist has been revealed as none other than an offspring of the defunct God of Murder, Bhaal, and must now deal with said heritage and those who would prey on it. An expansion titled Throne of Bhaal was released a year later, in 2001, in order to conclusively address the question of the protagonist’s divine ambitions or lack thereof.

Due to its greater overall popularity, the game has also spawned a LOT of mods–in other words, player-created content–thus allowing you to customise your gaming experience even more. Just as with the first game, some of the available stuff is either indispensable from a technical point of view (bug fixing, ease-of-use) or, when it’s additional content, extremely well written, to the extent that I couldn’t imagine playing without it. All this content is still actively supported by an enthusiastic and committed player community, which, for a 15-year old game, is damn impressive and a testimony to its quality. Of course, it’s not perfect and has its share of annoyances and aggravations, even after being modded, and, to a modern-day player, it may feel dated and somewhat clunky. But don’t let superficial concerns keep you from one the best WRPGs ever created, especially if you enjoyed the first one. This is BioWare in top form, and it shows.

"Hey, y'all, this is a great game!"

A remake called Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition was released in 2013 by Beamdog studios, incorporating both Shadows of Amn and Throne of Bhaal. It includes many of the fixes and tweaks that previously required mods, but also brings back the three new characters that were added by the Enhanced Edition of BG, as well as adding three more. The main problem is that not all the mods it hasn’t rendered obsolete are compatible with it. However, the modding community has been hard at work, and that problem has been almost entirely addressed. Emphasis on the “almost”, but it’s only a matter of time.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

His brother’s keeper

The culprit: Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac)

Elemental, my dear WatsonI’ve played sequels and prequels before, but this is the first time I’ve come across a bona fide ‘interquel’, that is, an entire game set between two pre-existing ones. So, if only because of this, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands made me curious. Released in 2010, it’s set between The Sands of Time and Warrior Within in the PS2 trilogy, and it does answer a legitimate question: what did the Prince do for seven whole years, before the Dahaka caught up with him (although, I also wonder why it took the Dahaka so long to get to it)? And while the events of the game are a bit too short to have taken up that entire interval, it’s still an answer to the question.

The other peculiarity of The Forgotten Sands is that, aside from the PS3 and Xbox 360 version (which is the one I played), it also exists on the Wii, PSP and Nintendo DS with a completely different plot on each console. I must say that I find this particularly bizarre, but also suspect. Perhaps the Prince did all of what goes down in these games within that seven-year interval, which would be legitimate, but then it’s as if the developers were inciting people to purchase all of the different iterations of the game to have ‘the full story’. Or perhaps they’re trying to say that the Prince could have done any and all of these things, which serves to trivialise the story somewhat. What’s also suspect is that the game comes on the heels of the 2008 Prince of Persia reboot, which essentially attempted to restart the series in a different setting and with a somewhat different Prince, but proved to be a controversial move, even though–or maybe because?–it was a hell of an example of a downer ending. With all that in mind, The Forgotten Sands may be considered as an attempt to return to the ‘tried and true’ success of the PS2 trilogy in order to placate fans.

Overview of a disasterThe real question is: is it successful? Well, not quite. Mind you, it isn’t for a lack of trying: there has been a genuine effort to keep gameplay interesting. It’s just that the storyline somehow fails to be entirely engaging. Or maybe it was because, after three games, I’d gotten a bit tired of the PS2-trilogy Prince and his shenanigans.

He's got a planBe that as it may, after his misadventures in The Sands of Time and his realisation that he was maybe a bit of an idiot, the Prince decides to go visit his elder brother, Malik (who still manages not to call him by name a single time over the course of the game!), and ask him for advice on how to be a good ruler. However, when he arrives at Malik’s castle, he finds it besieged by an army that’s trying to breach its treasure vault to obtain “Solomon’s Army”, a fabled magical force that is somehow supposed to be locked within. The Prince manages to get inside the fortress and finds Malik, who admits that he can’t win the siege and is about to release Solomon’s Army to defend his kingdom by using a special seal. After the whole Sands of Time fiasco, the Prince is understandably wary of this…and he turns out to be right.

Impressive hornsWhat Malik unleashes reveals itself to be an army of sand warriors led by an Ifrit (a fire djinn) called Ratash. The army turns everyone into sand statues, except for the Prince and Malik, who are protected by the two halves of the seal. The rest of the game focuses on stopping Ratash, with a bit of a twist thrown into the proceedings, albeit not a wholly unexpected one. It’s not a bad story, per se, but it does feel like a re-tread of The Sands of Time, more so than the two other games in the trilogy, especially since, within the original PoP chronology, it’s set directly after The Sands of Time.

Watery helperMind you, the Prince’s powers are not focused on sand this time around. He manages to acquire the help of a Marid (a water djinn) called Razia, who has been protecting Malik’s citadel for a long time and lends him elemental powers. Much like in The Sands of Time, the Prince needs to find entrances to the magical fountain where she resides before she bestows these on him. He can now either leave a trail of fire behind him when he runs, which damages all enemies caught inside it; shoot a beam of ice with each sword attack; create a whirlwind to damage multiple enemies or put up rock armour.

SkelnadoThese abilities are considered as magic, and the Prince accordingly gets four magic slots to power them up. He earns EXP by killing enemies and breaking sarcophagi that can be found in out-of-the-way spots, and can use it to upgrade either one of the four abilities, his HP or his magic slots (up to eight).

Walk on waterOn top of that, the Prince also gets abilities that he can use at will, without depleting his magic slots. These include the good ol’ rewind mechanic that has become a staple of the series. However, this time, it’s not infinite: a metre determines how far you can go back. There’s also the ability to solidify water for a limited amount of time, thereby making it usable for platforming; the ability to fly over some particularly large gaps; and, later on in the game, the ability to materialise destroyed walls in places where they used to exist.

Skeleton crewAll of this is pretty neat and probably the main attraction of the game. The power to solidify water, in particular, sees a lot of use and will put your reflexes to the test, as you will need to alternatively pass through sheets of water and use them to climb, for example. Other than that, the combat and exploration mechanics stay very similar to the previous games. The Prince is still an accomplished acrobat who can run along and up walls, swing on poles and jump from column to column. He still fights with a sword and can jump over enemies to attack them from above or from the back. He can also unleash power attacks and kick enemies that have shields in order to bring them down. He can no longer block attacks, but he can dodge them, which essentially boils down to the same thing. On the other hand, he can no longer recover HP by drinking water, which I always thought was a bit silly. Instead, he can break vases or boxes and sometimes find HP or magic refills in them. Probably less silly, but also a lot less realistic.

I'm outta hereUltimately, The Forgotten Sands is quite fun, from a pure gameplay standpoint, especially if you’re a fan of the PoP series. And it’s refreshing to see a female companion who isn’t all over the Prince, for once, even if he is admittedly less of an arse than he was in The Sands of Time. Still, the game feels a bit like déjà vu, and even though it’s blessedly free from the all-pervading emo-ness of Warrior Within, I guess that a) there’s just so much you can do with such a specific setting, and b) it’s all rather anticlimactic, considering that the Prince’s story was, for all intents and purposes, already finished by the time the game came out, and you know exactly what’s going to happen after the game ends. That being said, I don’t doubt the writers’ ability to come up with yet a new entry in the series somewhere down the line. I just wonder how advisable that would be. Answer: probably not very.

Who’s your daddy?!

The culprit: Bioshock 2 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac)

Faceless heroThere’s a saying that goes ‘can’t have too much of a good thing’. Well, actually, you can. Take the premise for Bioshock 2, for example. You know that point towards the end of the first game, where Jack had to partially transform himself into a Big Daddy? That was cool, wasn’t it? And unexpected too. So, in the wake of that, putting you into the shoes of a Big Daddy for the entire second game is distinctly less unexpected. And when that’s pretty much the only defining characteristic of the protagonist, killing the surprise really doesn’t play in his favour. Granted, Jack wasn’t the most personable guy around, but at least you heard him speak, and he had a recognisable face. Subject Delta is just a dude in a diving suit. You never even learn his real name.

Bang bangAs it turns out, Delta is an Alpha Series Big Daddy. Alpha Series were the first prototype of Big Daddy, not as heavily modified as Rosies or Bouncers and bonded to a single Little Sister, with the disadvantage that, if anything happened to said Little Sister, the Big Daddy would either fall into a coma or become psychotic. Delta was the first of the Alpha Series to be successfully bonded to a Little Sister. Unfortunately, she was Eleanor Lamb, the daughter of Sofia Lamb, a notorious psychiatrist who was invited to Rapture by Andrew Ryan. Lamb’s ideology was diametrically opposed to his–extreme altruism vs extreme individualism–, and she slowly began indoctrinating her patients and founding a cult. Ryan therefore imprisoned her, and Eleanor was turned into a Little Sister. However, Lamb eventually escaped, located Delta, hit him with a Hypnotize Plasmid and forced him to kill himself in front of a horrified Eleanor.

'Sup palCue 10 years later. Eleanor is now grown up and her psychological conditioning has been undone, but she wants no part in her mother’s schemes, which set her up as a messianic figure. Due to receiving massive doses of ADAM, she has developed a psychic connection with all other Little Sisters. Since Delta is the only ‘father’ she’s ever known, she gets the girls to collect samples of his DNA and resurrects him in a Vita Chamber. Due to their bond, Delta has brief telepathic visions of her. However, it’s a guy called Augustus Sinclair, one of Rapture’s top businessmen, who takes it upon himself to guide Delta to her, somewhat like Atlas from the first game. Whether this means that he’s like Atlas in other respects as well…you’ll just have to see for yourself.

Adolescence is a bitchChronologically, this takes place eight years after Bioshock. So Ryan is dead, and Rapture is quickly deteriorating even further. This means darker, more dilapidated surroundings, but also more difficult enemies, including two new kinds of Big Daddy (and a third one in the Minerva’s Den DLC), one new kind of Splicer and the Big Sisters: grown-up Little Sisters who have become violent and unstable after years of ADAM consumption and serve as additional protectors for the Little Sisters; they notably have cages on their backs for transporting the little ones, festooned with ribbons, and their oxygen tanks are decorated with childish scribbles. Big Sisters are fast, agile and strong, can throw fireballs, teleport like Houdini Splicers, and drain ADAM from corpses to replenish their health. I like their aesthetic as well: the gangling silhouette and leg braces suggesting a badly-controlled spurt of growth.

Second-rate villainIn general, Bioshock 2 is a lot more female-oriented than its predecessor. Brigid Tenenbaum was the only prominent female character in the first game, but here, besides the Big Sisters, you have Lamb, Grace (one of her aides) and Eleanor. What’s more, Delta works more closely with the Little Sisters, and Lamb’s ideology is like a perversion of the cliché female attribute of selflessness. This is a valid direction for a sequel to take, but Lamb doesn’t have the same aura as Andrew Ryan did and feels a bit tacked on.

Men on fireGameplay, however, has improved, and combat has been made more strategic. The basic mechanics are the same: Delta needs to fight through hordes of Splicers and tackle Big Daddies (and Big Sisters) using Plasmids and Gene Tonics. However, while Gene Tonic mechanics remain the same, Delta can now use Plasmids and Weapons simultaneously, and both the Plasmid and weapon selections are different. Rather than finding Plasmid upgrades, Delta can now upgrade them himself at Gatherer’s Garden stations, just like weapons. Instead of a wrench, his default melee option is a goddamn drill, like a Bouncer Big Daddy. Instead of a pistol, he has a Rivet Gun, like a Rosie Big Daddy. And instead of a crossbow, he gets a Spear Gun. The Chemical Thrower, however, is gone. What’s more, you must now choose which weapons to upgrade, because there aren’t enough upgrades for all of them. On the plus side, the Research Camera, which grants damage bonuses against enemies, now films instead of taking photos and can be used alongside a weapon during combat, making researching much easier.

ReflexesDelta also gets a Hack Tool, which allows hacking from a distance and can deploy miniature turrets in combat. Hacking has also been made easier. Rather than having to play Pipe Dream like in the first game, now you simply need to stop a moving needle inside a blue or green zone. The latter simply hacks the machine, while the former also grants a bonus (e.g. a discount). Landing in a white zone fails the hack and inflicts damage, while landing in a red zone also triggers an alarm and summons bots.

Everything else stays the same: health and EVE (necessary to use Plasmids) are respectively replenished with First Aid Kits and EVE syringes, as well as food, which can be found or bought at vending machines, as can ammo. Surveillance cameras and bots can be hacked to your advantage, as well as Health Stations, which will poison the Splicers that try to use them. And Vita Chambers are still around to bring Delta back should he suffer an untimely demise.

Rapture adoption servicesThe main plot device also remains the same: how to deal with the Little Sisters, who now unfortunately all look identical. Was it so difficult to at least give them different hair colours, like in the first game? Rather than simply choosing whether to rescue or harvest them, Delta can now also have them gather ADAM for him first. Each time he kills a Big Daddy, Eleanor can persuade the latter’s Little Sister that Delta is actually him, so that he can “Adopt” her. The Little Sister will climb onto his shoulders and travel around with him, signalling ADAM-rich corpses that she can harvest. The problem is that this will prompt every Splicer in the vicinity to come after her. They can’t kill her, but they’ll interrupt her, so Delta will have to fight them off. Each Little Sister can gather from two different corpses. Afterwards, Delta needs to take her to a Vent and decide one final time what to do with her. Rescuing the Little Sisters prompts Eleanor to give Delta gifts, but they are less numerous this time around, which is meant to make the ‘harvest or save’ choice more difficult. I still can’t bring myself to harm the poor things, though, so the dilemma is, once again, lost on me. Whatever your decision, once Delta has dealt with four Little Sisters, an ear-splitting shriek will signal a 30s countdown until the arrival of an angry Big Sister, which seems somewhat incongruous if you’re actually trying to save the girls.

Wolf or LambBe that as it may, Delta’s dealings with the Little Sisters affect the ending, just like in the first game. Moreover, they also affect Eleanor’s outlook on life, which is an interesting change and an additional layer of responsibility to his decisions. This also extends to Delta’s dealings with Lamb’s three main allies: sparing or killing them also influences Eleanor.

A multiplayer mode, entitled Fall of Rapture, has also been added, but since multiplayer’s not my thing, I have no idea what it’s like. On the DLC front, there are two single-player offerings. The first one is called Protector Trials and is reminiscent of the Challenge Rooms from the first game, except that, in keeping with the main game’s mechanic, it involves an unnamed Alpha Series Big Daddy protecting Little Sisters while they gather ADAM. The second DLC, dubbed Minerva’s Den, is more story-based, and follows another prototype Big Daddy called Subject Sigma, as he tries to retake control of Rapture’s supercomputer, The Thinker.

Father figureOverall, I have ambivalent feelings towards Bioshock 2. It’s not a bad game, but something feels lacking. On the one hand, the combat is fun and challenging, and Delta’s Big Daddy-ness does allow for some nifty perks, from being able to wander around underwater to having more interactions with Little Sisters; there’s notably a part of the game where you experience their mental conditioning first-hand. Delta’s influence on Eleanor is also a clever addition. And Rapture is still a compelling, disturbing, nightmarish setting. On the other hand, the storyline isn’t quite up to scratch. Neither Lamb nor Delta is a very interesting character. And the fact that both DLCs also feature Big Daddies as protagonists really doesn’t help. Just how many self-aware Big Daddies are there in Rapture, anyway? Bottom line: if you enjoyed the first Bioshock for its combat, you’ll find plenty to like in this one as well. If you enjoyed it for other reasons, you might feel a tad disappointed.

Potato batteries and combustible lemons

The culprit: Portal 2 (PC, Mac, PlayStation3, Xbox 360)

Wire octopusA good sequel is always a pleasant surprise. But a good sequel to a sleeper hit is a special kind of treat. The first Portal was a flash of wickedly funny genius out of left field. Portal 2 confirms that the series is in the hands of consistently brilliant writers. In other words, the cake wasn’t a lie.

By now, the qualities of the first game have been widely broadcast, but, shocking as it may seem, it did also have flaws, the most notable of which was repetitiveness. While its length successfully prevented that from becoming a major problem (at least on first playthrough), more of the same for a whole second game would’ve been problematic. Well, Portal 2 avoids that problem, and, in retrospect, makes the first game feel like a bit of a prototype. Which, to be entirely fair, it was.

FashionistaYou are still in control of Chell (with a mysterious wardrobe upgrade), whom, as you may remember, the first game left in rather dire straits. Now, she is awakened in a stasis room–or Extended Relaxation Centre–by a voice on the intercom for a short tutorial: the controls are pretty much the same as before: walk, jump, crouch, pick up stuff and, later, place portals. She’s then put back to sleep; when she next awakens, several years–or decades?–have obviously passed (c.f. the pillow). An autonomous, rather worried-sounding personality core named Wheatley contacts her and helps her escape, as she has apparently been scheduled to be terminated. This leads to two discoveries: one, the Aperture Science facility is huge; two, it’s now in a rather poor state.

BreakdownThus, instead of the pristine white rooms of the first game, Chell now travels through dilapidated, half-overgrown environments, once again with the goal to save her skin. This gives the game a more chaotic feel. You now have to get even more creative with the rules, and the puzzles still provide just the right level of challenge, between figuring out the solutions and executing them.

Walking on lightChell still has a portal gun, since that is, after all, the founding principle of the series, but many new gadgets are also introduced, such as Aerial Faith Plates (boing!), Hard Light Bridges and Excursion Funnels (i.e. tractor beams). Weighted Storage Cubes (and the Companion Cube <3) also make a comeback, now joined by their cousins, the Redirection Cubes. Of course, the game would feel incomplete without the good ol’ turrets, which now come in startlingly humorous varieties, including an Oracle Turret. They’re still just as deadly though–well, mostly–, but the game’s autosave function will take care of any accidental demises.

BlinkyWheatley accompanies and helps Chell, much as GLaDOS did in the first game, with the difference that he is mobile and visible. A lot of people seem to dislike him, and I can see where they’re coming from: he’s very different from GLaDOS, a bumbling, manic worrywart instead of a cool, cynical mastermind. Still, I enjoyed the change of pace, and there’s more to him than first meets the eye.

Science bubblesApart from what’s left of the main facility, which notably features some brilliant safety advertisements for Aperture employees, such as the ‘Animal King Takeover’, Chell also gets to explore the underbelly of Aperture, as she visits the ruins of its old premises, located in a salt mine. How and why she gets there is up to you to discover, but predictable it certainly is not. These levels are slightly harder, as the state of the infrastructure makes them more dangerous to navigate, and the devices used back in the day were different from the ones you may be accustomed to. Chell gets to sample old test chamber prototypes, but also gadgets that were abandoned as the facility developed, such as gels, which you’ll find shooting out of pipes and can direct on various surfaces at your convenience.

Speed trackBlue (repulsion) gel allows Chell to bounce very high; orange (propulsion) gel allows her to go into Speedy Gonzales mode; and white (conversion) gel allows her to coat surfaces in white paint, thereby enabling the placement of portals in previously inaccessible locations. Some people may find the gels rather haphazard as a means of puzzle solving, but I thought that that was the whole point: they were discontinued as a product, after all, there’s gotta be a reason for that. Overall, I found this a welcome diversion from ‘normal’ portal mechanics and a way to keep the player interested and constantly on their toes.

The man with the lemonsThe Old Aperture levels also serve to introduce, via recordings, the now-defunct but legendary Cave Johnson, founder of the company, champion of scientific progress (well, sorta…) and author of truly epic speeches, such as the one about combustible lemons, which I will let you savour firsthand. It also creates a much-enhanced backstory for the game, something that was markedly absent from the first opus. It successfully builds on the already present theme of science gone haywire, and I found that it brought welcome depth and context to the table, as well as some startling revelations. It’s also at this point that you will have to deal with a very special potato battery.

Much ado about spaceI feel I should also mention the ending of the game, which manages to be hilarious, completely crazy and emotional at the same time. Spoilers are out of the question, of course, but, just to give you an idea, the description of the achievement you receive for experiencing it reads “That just happened.” I must also put in a word for the Space Personality Core.  You’ll know why when you encounter it.

Laurel and HardyPortal 2 introduces a two-player mode instead of the challenge rooms of its predecessor. Each player is put in control of a robot and tasked with testing out experimental chambers. Since they are robots, they are in no danger of dying, which makes them perfect for the job and is precisely the reason why they were created for testing. There’s a squat, rotund ‘male’ robot with a blue eye called Atlas and a tall, oblong ‘female’ one with a yellow eye called P-Body: they even made it onto the game’s cover, which, admittedly, is a bit misleading, because they barely appear in the main game, and you never control them. Be that as it may, in two-player mode, each has a portal gun, which allows players to work with four portals instead of two and thus greatly expands the scope of what they can do. Again, as with all multiplayer modes, I’ve not touched it, so I can’t really give an opinion on it. However, I’ve heard a lot of praise for it, and I have to admit that the robots are cute, at least, and that the Portal universe lends itself to this kind of gameplay pretty much ideally.

Good adviceOverall, I thought Portal 2 was an excellent follow up to its predecessor, expanding on the original story in all the good ways and creating a wonderfully exhilarating, fun experience, filled with humour, surprises and even more gravity-defying stunts. Of course, there will always be things to criticise, and complaints have included a lack of direction in the second act of the game or the length of loading times. None of that bothered me, however; I had a genuine blast and, to anyone who hasn’t played this yet, I put the following question: “what are you waiting for?”

Letters to the dead

The culprit: Dear Esther (PC, Mac, via Steam)

Breaking the cloudsIt’s a little difficult to say what Dear Esther really is. On the one hand, it’s been presented and advertised as a game, from indie developer thechineseroom, but you’ll quickly realise that there’s not much actual gaming involved. I guess ‘semi-interactive art film’ would be a better definition. And I would be lying if I said that that wasn’t somewhat disappointing: I went in expecting some sort of Myst-like adventure, but ended up with something very different instead. However, I would also be lying if I said I wasn’t affected at all. Quite the contrary, actually, due to a mix of haunting music, lovely visuals and some heartbreaking writing, which all mesh together to form a peculiarly mesmerizing atmosphere.

Lone sentinelThe premise is simple, if somewhat mystifying, especially in hindsight. You are put in the shoes (read: first-person view) of an unknown character, appearing on a stone jetty in front of a lighthouse on a forlorn island in the Hebrides. The game greets you with a voiceover: a man reading a letter to the “Dear Esther” of the title. And from there, you’re essentially left to your own devices. Except that all you can do is walk. You can’t jump, you can’t run (that one can get especially aggravating at times, when you have long distances to cross), you can’t even interact with your environment. No picking things up or twiddling with buttons, levers or what have you. You do have a flashlight, but that automatically turns on whenever you enter a darkened environment. Player agency? Yeah, not the game’s strong point.

Not for the hydrophobicOne thing you can do besides walking is swim, but that only sees limited use in some specific situations. If you just try to swim off the island, there’s only so far you can go before the game–rather distressingly, I might add–forces you to go under and respawn on the shore. Which makes sense, I guess: that water must be awfully cold. That said, do try it out at least once. Trust me.

Within this framework, all that’s left for you to do is explore. Observe. Listen. And take in. The game is split into five main areas of uneven size (which are gradually unlocked for easy access from the main menu once you’ve reached them in the game), and while it Standing stonesdoes keep some autosaves, you can also save wherever you like. The voiced narrative is your guiding line, popping up at predetermined spots on the island. All excerpts of letters to Esther, explaining the backstory piece by piece. The developers did pull a neat little trick here, however, to add replayability. Several different texts may trigger at the same spot, and the game randomly chooses one. And no, you can’t walk away and come back to hear a different one: you’d have to reload a save or play the game again. This allows for a slightly different perspective on the story each time.

Lonely lightThe essentials are in place fairly quickly: Esther is the narrator’s wife, and she is dead. How she died, what surrounded and followed this event, and, ultimately, why you’re on this island (and exactly who the character you’re controlling is supposed to be), I will leave you to experience for yourself. Because this is the heart of the game. And it’s beautiful, if unrelentingly sad. If I had to criticize it, I would say that the language may seem a tad overblown at times, especially towards the end, where the cohesiveness of the narrative starts to–intentionally–fall apart, and the metaphors and images become rather extravagant. Some may say that this is the game trying to show off how artsy and poetic it is, just because it can. There’s also the fact that the ending offers very little in the way of answers, and you may end up more confused than when you started out. At this point, it all depends on how receptive you are to the game’s own brand of mystique: either you buy into it, or you think Eye in the skyit’s a load of hogwash. I’m in the first category: some passages moved me profoundly. In fact, I dare you to get as far as “From this infection, hope. From this island, flight. From this grief, love. Come back…Come back…”, without experiencing at least a slight shiver.

Distant lightsAside from the emotional narrative, there’s the eye candy. The exterior of the island is bathed in an overcast, late afternoon light, with pinkish clouds slowly sailing across the sky, and the greyish tint of twilight beginning to settle on the forlorn landscape (it helps that this just so happens to be my favourite time of day). Besides the dilapidated lighthouse, there’s a beached cargo ship, the ramshackle remains of a hut and an aerial, blinking a red eye in the distance. Oh, and caves. Lots of caves. And, running like a trail of breadcrumbs throughout these surroundings, mysterious symbols–chemical formulas, electrical circuit diagrams, drawings–and a string of candles. Possibly ghostly figures, as well, if you’ve got a keen eye. And, accompanying all this, the music, all eerie violins and lonesome piano notes, never intrusive, occasionally goosebump-inducing, always poignant.

UnderworldOverall, I have mixed feelings about Dear Esther. On the one hand, I hesitate to qualify it as a game and feel slightly…cheated in that respect? I did spend time scribbling things down, in the hopes that they would come in useful later, to no avail. On the other hand, I’m not sure that added interaction wouldn’t have spoiled the overall impact. Because the lack of player agency becomes an integral part of the experience as you progress. Would the ability to pick up stray pieces of paper or bits of rock have added anything to it? Most likely not. Would puzzles even have made sense within the framework of the narrative? Again, probably not. So, really, I’m not sure that Esther could have been anything else than what it is: a nugget of condensed beauty, loss and sadness, defying classification. And I shall leave you with the game’s own words:

Fragile armada“From here I can see my armada. I collected all the letters I’d ever meant to send to you, if I’d have ever made it to the mainland but had instead collected at the bottom of my rucksack, and I spread them out along the lost beach. Then I took each and every one and I folded them into boats. I folded you into the creases and then, as the sun was setting, I set the fleet to sail. Shattered into twenty-one pieces, I consigned you to the Atlantic, and I sat here until I’d watched all of you sink.”

Unforgotten, unforgiven

The culprit: Myst III: Exile (PC, Mac, Xbox, PlayStation 2)

After Riven, the Myst series changed hands, with both a different developer and a different publisher (Ubisoft), and Myst III: Exile went back to its roots. Instead of one very large age and two tiny ones, there is now a hub age and five smaller ones connected to it. Moreover, after the Gehn parenthesis, the story returns to its root villains, Sirrus and Achenar, or rather, the direct consequences of their actions in the first game.

Curious architectureThe problem is that changing developers is always risky. Some people were disappointed with the return to a Myst-like exploration scheme, after the evolution effected in Riven, but as this kind of hub-based exploration has since become the staple for the series, it’s Riven that now stands as an exception. Of course, this is largely what makes it the best game in the series, in my eyes, but no matter. The other controversial change is a more…‘gamey’ approach to things, for lack of a better term. Many felt that the puzzles were less integrated into their environment than they previously were, and that the game was overly intrusive in pointing certain things out. While that may be true in comparison to Riven, which has been criticised for being overly subtle, I don’t feel it’s accurate in comparison to, say, Myst. In fact, considering the in-game reason why the ages in Myst III were created, I feel that the puzzle presentation makes complete sense. I also feel that it justifies the ‘reward rides’ which conclude three of the ages. Another noticeable change lies in the soundtrack. Robyn Miller, who was responsible for the music in the first two games, left the team after Riven and was replaced by a certain Jack Wall, who has since achieved fame by working on the Mass Effect series, Call of Duty or Splinter CellMyst III was his breakthrough, and its soundtrack is therefore a lot more dramatic, elaborate and noticeable, which may have been jarring for some. I can certainly see where they’re coming from, but some of the tracks are very good.

The end result is that Myst III wasn’t as commercially successful as its predecessors, which I don’t feel is entirely fair. I genuinely enjoyed the game: it’s my second favourite in the series, and I would even rate it above the original Myst. It notably features my favourite age of all, Amateria. Graphical improvements are apparent, which, in a game so heavily dependent on outstanding visuals to create its worlds, can only be a good thing. While the point-and-click movement scheme of the preceding games is retained, the ‘slideshow’ look isn’t. Instead, you now have a 360° (or almost) camera, which allows for unbroken perspective at every in-game node; some people have termed this ‘bubblevision’. And last, but not least, the game benefits from a solid storyline and a fantastic, ambivalent villain. In short, I can only recommend it.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

A hard nut to crack

The culprit: Baldur’s Gate + Tales of the Sword Coast (PC, Mac)

Under a blood-red skyIf you’re a fan of RPGs in general, and WRPGs in particular, you will have heard of Baldur’s Gate. Even more than a decade after its release, this game is still considered a milestone for the genre, despite the dated graphics, the perfunctory voice acting and the staggeringly complex combat system. There’s even an Enhanced Edition currently in the works. Baldur’s Gate was also responsible for propelling its developer, the Canadian studio BioWare, to fame, establishing it as one of the most successful WRPG creators for years to come. And while they’ve recently suffered a massive decline in quality, this game was made back in their glory days.I won’t lie: it takes some getting used to. It has quite a few flaws and kinks, some very annoying, some only mildly aggravating, and a modern-day player, used to shiny graphics, fully-voiced dialogue, speed and streamlined combat mechanics, might find it difficult to like. Still, if you can get past its shortcomings, there’s also a lot of great stuff, particularly if you consider the saga as a whole. Kind of like a nut: you have to crack the shell first to get to the good part, but that good part is what you remember afterwards. The game is vast, detailed, involved and Verbosenot afraid to take its time (sometimes excessively). It features extensive dialogue, a very large cast of characters which includes some truly memorable individuals (something BioWare is renowned for and still does well) and a compelling storyline. It’s biased towards male players, as all games used to be back in the day, but that’s hardly a shocker and doesn’t really prevent it from being enjoyable.

The main difference between JRPGs and WRPGs is the latter’s emphasis on choice, which is abundantly present here. The protagonist is essentially a blank slate for you, All hail Tolkienthe player, to customise to your heart’s content, and, for someone used to JRPGs as I was, this kind of freedom is genuinely a breath of fresh air. Baldur’s Gate is as typical as WRPGs get, being based on a pre-existing high fantasy setting (i.e. a medieval environment, abundant borrowing from Tolkien–elves, dwarves, halflings, the whole nine yards–, and a pantheon of deities who actively influence the lives of their worshippers), the Forgotten Realms, which had previously been featured in tabletop Dungeons & Dragons games and several books. While it creates some continuity issues with the latter, they are not necessary to understand the game’s premise, and you can perfectly well head into it without ever having heard of the Realms before. The one big hurdle to leap is understanding the combat system, but you don’t necessarily need to master all its intricacies to have a working grasp on things.

PC games have this advantage over their console counterparts that they are much more open to player involvement. By that, I mean modding: various and sundry additions, written and implemented by players themselves. This can range from bug fixing, to restoring cut content, tweaking the combat system, adding customised weapons and armour, or even creating entirely new quests and characters. As luck would have it, the Baldur’s Gate modding community is still very active, even after all this time, and the game is thus blessed with an extensive array of goodies to pick from to improve your experience. Some of them–specifically, the ones that fix bugs and rebalance the game–are pretty much indispensable. Others are so well-written that I couldn’t imagine playing the game without them. This isn’t to disparage the original developers’ efforts–which, after all, have resulted in a game that people still want to play after more than ten years–, but many dedicated modders have produced amazing things. In the end, this makes Baldur’s Gate an impressive collaborative venture: a game which is only further enriched by its audience. And that is an undeniable quality.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Be very afraid of the dark

The culprit: Amnesia: The Dark Descent + Justine (PC, Mac)

Dracula would love this placeYou who are faint of heart, stop reading now. I thought that Penumbra was a strong contender for the top spot on my horror list, but Frictional Games have since outdone themselves and produced Amnesia, premium quality, high-octane nightmare fuel. Taking a common plot device (amnesia) and running away with it (into a dark wood) has never been so effective, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this is the scariest game I have played to date. People–and the game itself, in fact–will tell you to play at night with the lights off. Well, even with the lights on, I was still terrified. Heck, to this day, I can’t look at a picture of a Grunt for more than a few seconds without wincing.

Everything that Penumbra did right is reused and amplified in this game, from lack of combat to unreliable perception. The interface is largely Carpet needs cleaningthe same (first-person view, hand cursor and physics engine), as is the menu. The game is set in XIXth century Prussia, in the foreboding Brennenburg Castle, situated in the middle of a forest. You are put in the shoes of Daniel, a young Englishman, who wakes up, confused and disoriented somewhere in the building. He can barely remember his name, and yet he must make sense of both his surroundings, which are anything but reassuring or safe, and his situation, which is downright horrifying. You discover snippets of Daniel’s history from short texts on loading screens, but also through flashbacks, letters and diary entries strewn throughout the castle…which he has left for himself. Apparently, his amnesia is self-inflicted and voluntary, and if you’re wondering what could possibly have driven him to such an action, well…play and find out. I’ll just say that he was involved in an ill-fated archaeological expedition, and it was all downhill from there.

Worse for wearDaniel is one of the game’s best assets, as a channel for fear, because saying that he has a fragile psyche is an understatement. Philip, his predecessor from Penumbra, could panic if staring directly at an enemy for a prolonged period of time. But compared to Dan, that makes him a paragon of stoicism. And where Phil was a gasper, Dan’s a professional whimperer. He whimpers like a boss. This is especially striking when compared to his normal, somewhat gruff baritone, showcasing just how much of a wreck he has become. Dan’s other defining characteristic is his severe nyctophobia. Just walk him through a dark corridor, and you’ll see what I mean. The screen will start distorting and blurring, and you’ll hear the unnerving sound of grinding teeth. Should he remain without a light source for long enough or witness one horrifying event too many, hallucinations­ may kick in. Those could be bugs crawling across the screen, imaginary corpses or a portrait distorting into a nightmarish vision (this is a particularly nasty one). That, or he will start talking to himself. This is a system most likely inspired by Eternal Just how mad are you?Darkness: besides his health meter (indicated by a human heart on the menu screen), Dan also has a sanity meter (indicated by a brain and spinal cord). You can increase it by solving puzzles or stabilise it by staying in the light, but its natural state, so to speak, is a steady downward curve. Should it ever deplete completely, Dan will collapse on the floor in a gibbering mess for a few seconds, before getting back up with a hit to his health. The problem is that if this happens when an enemy is nearby, he might as well be blowing a foghorn.

To make matters worse, since Dan can’t fight, his only recourse when faced with a hostile is to cower in a dark corner until it lumbers away. Except that, with his condition, you’d better hope that it happens quickly. This makes for some particularly tense moments, and a crucial issue in the game is balancing the amount of ambient light: enough to keep Dan decently lucid, but not enough to make him a sitting duck. This is compounded with the fact that both of his Feeble lightlight sources are limited. Where Phil had his trusty, inexhaustible glowstick, Dan has an oil lantern–and available oil refills are scant at best–and some tinderboxes, which he can use to light candles or torches. The other commodity in short supply are laudanum vials, which are used to recover health. Another clue, if you needed any, that you need to avoid damage as much as possible.

SilhouetteEnemies…oh god. The most common type–and, unfortunately for me, the one I find scariest–is the Grunt. Affectionately dubbed ‘Mr.Face’ by the fanbase. This should clue you in as to the most distinctive part of its anatomy. And I’ll leave it at that. If you want a clearer image (think very carefully before deciding), look here. I just don’t want this thing staring back at me every time I look at this review. *shudders* Although your mileage may vary: some people find the Brute, which shows up in later levels, scarier. It’s certainly more deadly, as it will usually down Dan in one hit, whereas he can weather Wet footstepsa couple of Grunt slashes. The third enemy goes by the uncouth moniker of ‘Kaernk’ and…it’s invisible. To some, that’s even more terrifying than visible monstrosities. Fortunately, it’s the rarest enemy of the three. Unfortunately, the sequences involving it are pretty harrowing. There’s one other hostile out for Dan’s blood, but I’ll leave you to experience that one for yourself.

There are three endings to the game, and while one of them is indisputably bad, it’s a toss-up as to which of the other two is the best. Up to you to make up your mind, but there’s certainly food for thought involved. The other positive aspects are the graphics and the music, composed by Mikko Tarmia, who already worked on Penumbra. Where Safe for nowthe former game had that gritty, semi-industrial feel to it, Amnesia is unabashedly baroque, with wooden furniture, thick red curtains and carpets, and old stones dimly lit by flickering candlelight. An old castle is a perfect setting for horror, and Amnesia  is more pleasing to the eye than its predecessor. Especially the Back Hall…at first. The Back Hall also features my favourite piece from the game’s soundtrack, a surprisingly calm, solemn and soothing track, which contributes to giving the place a temporary aura of safety. The rest of the soundtrack is none too shabby either, successfully upholding a creepy, gloomy atmosphere, with some disturbing sound effects interspersed with the music.

Several months after the release of the game, an expansion titled Justine saw the light of day. While it’s also set in the XIXth century, it bears no relation to Daniel’s story (or a very tenuous one), and features a different protagonist–amnesia being the only common characteristic–and a very different perspective on things. The goal She's got a plan for youthis time is to find a way through a series of psychological ‘tests’, set up by Justine, a French noblewoman, who is a sadistic sociopath (it’s no wonder she’s named after a book by Sade). You find yourself in her Cabinet of Perturbation, and she guides you through a series of phonograph recordings she has left behind. It’s a shorter experience than Amnesia, but no less intense. There’s still no combat and only three enemies, but they all used to be Justine’s suitors…before she decided to experiment on them: Aloïs, the tennis player, Basile, the carpenter, and Malo, the violinist. Each represents a different kind of ‘love’ and exhibits the corresponding personality: Aloïs is needy and devoted, Basile is rough and abusive, and Malo is passionate and…well, insane. And if I were in their shoes, I’d swear bloody revenge on Justine as well.

No guardian angelJustine is also made significantly dicier by the inability to save. Your character dies, you start over from the beginning. And considering that there is an excruciatingly difficult chase sequence towards the end, the likelihood of having to start over is a very real one. So if you become frustrated after being repeatedly mauled, like I did, you may consider installing a mod which implements saving, fittingly titled “Softcore Justine”. This problem aside, I did enjoy this storyline for its difference in tone. It even has a chilling twist ending. Special commendation goes to the profoundly unsettling messages on the wall of the mazelike Crypt corridors (“death shall move across the floor”Writing on the wall gave me a hearty wave of goosebumps) and to the adrenaline-charged music which plays when a Suitor gives chase. Still gives me a jolt when I hear it.

Into the darknessAll in all, Amnesia is a heck of an experience. There is room for improvement, such as randomising enemy encounters, which are currently scripted and therefore lose some impact after the first playthrough, but don’t let that deter you. It would just be the cherry on top of a deliciously terrifying cake. If I had to recommend one horror game above all others, this would be it. But I decline all responsibility for any involuntary yelps, screams, nightmares or sudden trips to a different room which may ensue.

Somewhere beyond the sea

The culprit: Bioshock (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac)

I’m not usually a big fan of shooters. For me, an enjoyable game includes at least one of three things: a solid storyline, well-developed characters or a unique atmosphere, none of which tend to be a shooter’s strong point. Besides, blowing up heads isn’t exactly my idea of fun. Still, I’d heard enough praise for Bioshock that I became curious and decided to give it a shot (pun fully intended). It’s an FPS alright, and a pretty violent one at that. But it does have two of the aforementioned things: an elaborate storyline and a captivating atmosphere.

UnderlitThe game takes place in 1960. You control Jack, a bloke on a transatlantic flight, which, as his luck would have it, crashes. He comes to in the middle of the ocean, the only survivor of the catastrophe, and realises that there’s a lighthouse nearby (yes, in the middle of the ocean). Inside, he finds a bathysphere which takes him to an underwater metropolis called Rapture. As he gradually discovers through various recordings left behind, the city was founded in secret after WWII on the principle of free enterprise by a guy called Andrew Ryan, who got fed up with both capitalism and communism. So he gathered the best and brightest in all domains, and gave them free rein to create and innovate. Around 1950, a substance named ADAM was discovered, allowing for selective rewriting of a person’s genetic code, ranging from regenerative properties, to cosmetic enhancements, to being able to shoot fireballs. It was produced in small quantities by a sea slug, but implanting said slug into human hosts (specifically, little girls) dramatically increased the yield. This led to the creation of Little Sisters: girls ‘repurposed’ to produce ADAM. The problem was that ADAM abuse caused dependence, mental damage and severe physical deformities, gradually Unlikely paircreating a violent substrate of the population (Splicers) which fought over it. Eventually, Little Sisters were sent to gather ADAM from their corpses, but since that exposed them to attack, Big Daddies were created: heavily altered human beings, mentally conditioned to protect the girls with their lives. However, this didn’t prevent civil war, which erupted in 1959, and Rapture, as Jack finds it, is a wrecked battleground where Splicers roam the streets. Stranded after his bathysphere is destroyed, he’s contacted by a guy calling himself Atlas (a reference to Ayn Rand, whose work heavily influenced the game) who offers to help him escape in return for assistance in rescuing his family.

Somebody hit the lightsRapture is an original creation and a unique setting, combining eerie beauty with nightmarish desolation, and managing to be both grandiose and claustrophobic at the same time; a drowned, fallen Eden. It has a dated charm to it, with its art deco architecture (think Rockefeller Center), old 1950s-styled posters on the walls, and a soundtrack composed of 1950s music. Of course, all this has been copiously damaged: there are fires, busted walls and leaks all over the place. Splicers wander Bunny hug!among the rubble, chattering to themselves, ruins of human beings in torn cocktail outfits and masks, work blues or fishermen’s overalls. And then, every once in a while, you’ll hear the heavy stomp and bellow of a Big Daddy or the creepy singsong of a Little Sister, before glimpsing the pair trudging around a corner: a hulking, unnatural form in a diving suit and a scrawny girl with glowing yellow eyes, a ragged dress and a long syringe attached to a milk bottle.

Dali's evil twinDuring his stay in Rapture, Jack will get up close and personal with its inhabitants (the sane, the insane, the mutated and the gleefully bonkers, such as Sander Cohen) and sample the local delicacies. Read: shoot things in the face and shoot up on ADAM. Splicers constitute the bulk of enemies, and while Big Daddies aren’t hostile unless Jack actively attacks them, you can probably guess that he’ll be required to do so at some point (and it is, at first, a hefty challenge which requires preparation). He has access to a wide selection of weapons, ranging from a wrench, to a shotgun, to a grenade launcher, but also a plethora of Plasmids and Gene Tonics, which can either be found lying around or purchased with ADAM at Gatherer’s Gardens machines. Plasmids grant offensive Electric veinsabilities, like shooting fireballs, lightning or even bees, telekinetically throwing objects or hypnotising Big Daddies, and when you first acquire them, you are treated to an amusing cartoon-drawn ad explaining their use. They also require a constant supply of EVE, a modified version of ADAM, which is a blue substance found in large syringes (let’s not even get into hygiene concerns). Gene Tonics are passive enhancements, which come in three varieties: Combat Tonics enhance Jack’s fighting abilities (eg. Armored Shell reduces physical damage taken by 15%), Physical Tonics augment his overall condition (eg. Medical Expert makes First Aid Kits 20% more effective) and Engineering Tonics boost his competence with machines (eg. Speedy Hacker allows more time for hacking). Because Rapture is populated with a variety of those. There are gun turrets and security cameras (which summon gun bots when they detect Jack), both of which can be hacked to use against Splicers. Health Stations (which offer an HP refill for a price, but can also be used by Splicers) can be hacked to reduce their price and make them lethal to Splicers. Where's Mario when you need him?Vending machines, which sell food and ammo, can also be hacked to reduce their prices, and the odd safe can yield up sizeable amounts of loot. Hacking is achieved through a minigame, which requires building a pipe to direct fluid from one end of a grid to another. This isn’t always easy, and a failure will result in an electric shock and some bots being summoned.

PolaroidAnother item which will give Jack an edge in combat is the research camera. Once found, it allows him to take pictures of enemies and bots, which reveal their weaknesses. Each picture is rated according to its quality (well-framed, close-up, action shot, multiple enemies). Dead enemies are worth less, and photographing the same enemy gradually yields fewer points, prompting Jack to go find fresh blood after a while. There are five ‘levels’ of research for each subject: levels one, three and five grant damage bonuses, while levels two and four grant Gene Tonics.

Not the kind of bank you hold upWeapons can be upgraded at Power to the People stations, while Gene Tonics and Plasmids can be equipped at Gene Banks. Moreover, junk items (like tubes or wire) can be combined to create rare ammo at U-Invent machines. Jack’s HP and EVE supplies are indicated by a red and blue bar at the top of the screen and can be replenished either with First Aid Kits and EVE syringes (of which he can carry up to nine each, when fully upgraded) or with various foodstuffs and items, either purchased, found lying around or looted off enemy corpses. Snacks (crisps and cakes) and bandages will replenish HP, coffee will replenish EVE, Pep Bars will replenish both, cigarettes will replenish EVE at the cost of some HP, while alcohol will do the reverse. Until you find the Booze Hound Gene Tonic, that is, which will turn alcohol into the most profitable resource in the game (making it replenish EVE instead of draining it). It won’t prevent Jack from getting woozy if he imbibes too much though, so make sure he’s not about to be jumped by a Splicer before going on a bender. Finally, there are a number of Vita-Chambers dotted around, which will revive Jack should he get stomped. More Resurrection centralimportantly, this won’t regenerate enemies, so he can just pick up where he left off. If you’re looking for a challenge though, set the game to the Hard or Survivor difficulty and turn the Vita-Chambers off. There are trophies/achievements for that, appropriately dubbed “Brass Balls” and “I Chose the Impossible”, respectively.

Splattering Splicers is all well and good, but, to spice things up, the game throws a moral dilemma at you. Soon after his arrival, Jack runs into Brigid Tenenbaum, the woman who originally created the Little Sisters. However, she gradually began to feel remorse and decided to save the girls, killing the slugs inside them with a special Plasmid. She offers it to Jack and urges him to save the Little Sisters he encounters–which entails killing their Big Daddies, affectionately dubbed “Mr Bubbles”–, promising a reward. Atlas, on the other hand, tells him to simply “harvest” them (ie. forcibly rip out the slugs, which kills them), as that will yield more ADAM. You can thus take two Toasty Mr Bubblesdifferent paths through the game for two different endings: either save the Little Sisters (which results in Tenenbaum gifting you with surplus ADAM, as well as Plasmids and Tonics) or kill them all. Personally, I could never do the latter: simply hearing a Little Sister crying after you take down her Big Daddy (“wake up, Mr Bubbles…”) is enough to push all my pity buttons.

Overall, I enjoyed Bioshock. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but it delivers on its promises and does it in style. The dark atmosphere and moral implications of the storyline both Come one, come all!do a good job of enhancing the FPS experience. Rapture is an aesthetic treat, and the Big Daddy-Little Sister pair has become iconic. It won’t be everybody’s cup of tea though, and if you’re easily squicked, you’ll probably want to give it a wide berth. Otherwise, if you’re looking for something different from a run-of-the-mill bullet-fest, look no further. And if you haven’t had quite enough, the Challenge Rooms DLC provides some optional missions to put your survival instincts to the test.