I am that rare thing, that forgotten demographic, that chimera of the gaming world.
I am a guy with an Xbox Gold Membership and an AARP card.
‘Struth. Even though my twitch-muscle response time took a nosedive during the Reagan administration, even though I often win the FIFO award during multiplayer gaming sessions, I still enjoy a little mayhem now and again.
The First-Person Shooter is my go-to genre in gaming, and as such, I’ve followed several of the big franchises over the years. This year saw long-awaited releases for three of them: Halo, Gears of War, and BioShock. I’ve played them all, now, and I am therefore qualified to say that there’s only franchise that did it right.
Now, since I am Old Man Gamer, my yardsticks are not the same as those freshly minted TwitchMaster 2000 players. While I appreciate the diverse weaponry and multiplayer modes and splatter-factors, I put greater weight on story line, set design, innovative gameplay, character realization, and what I call the Immersion Factor. I also care about how women are portrayed in video games, not because I’m a prude, but because I’m just sick and tired of females only existing in video games to up the titillation quotient.
So–assuming I haven’t lost you completely at this point–my findings.
I regret to inform you that the Halo franchise has entered a persistent vegetative state. Halo 4 is the most insipid, least playable, most predictable, and most tiresome entry the team has produced thus far. The innovations of Halo: OSD and Halo: Reach are gone, and we’re back to Golden Path gameplay with map-driven multiplayer. Halo needs to be put down before it embarrasses itself.
Most damning, in my mind, was the depiction of the AI “Cortana” who was realized, essentially, as a naked woman. This was completely gratuitous, having no bearing on any aspect of play, plot, or character. And while other females are employed in the game, they are used primarily as the voices of command staff and have little screen time. The Halo franchise is so interested in expanding to other media–novels, film, webcasts–that they’ve dumbed down their primary product.
I had to force myself to finish the campaign.
Gears of War: Judgment
As with Halo, the Gears of War franchise went with a “prequel” to the storyline of their previous titles. This is usually a sign that the franchise doesn’t know what to do next, and such is the case here. As a result, the storyline is tired and generally unsurprising. There is little new about the gameplay in campaign mode, but the multiplayer games have the added interest of the “Z factor,” in that the maps now have a third dimension. Movement is not just forward or sideways, but also up and down through the maps.
Unfortunately, the character realization took a step back in this release. While the characters used to be well animated, in GOW:J they look wooden, flat, and almost puppet-like. They also removed some of the best parts of their multiplayer modes. “Horde” mode (a favorite among my gaming group) is gone, replaced by a weaker version called “Survival” and the ability to customize private games was seriously limited. Campaign gameplay is still a “Golden Path” walk from encounter to encounter, though the storyline had enough cohesion to pull me through to its predictable end.
The female character (singular, there are no others) in this release is a good bit less than her predecessors. While I enjoyed the female characters in previous GOW releases, and where their treatment by their cohorts was as equals, in this release the lone woman is belittled, given a different armor loadout (presumably so we could see her butt better), and is in general treated as a lesser individual. This is a shift and, though it can be rationalized with the “She’s just a cadet” line, I would have preferred if the storyline’s cadet had been male, and she’d been a full equal with the men.
This game outstrips the competition on every measure of value but one: it has no multiplayer mode. Aside from that (which, for many, is a non-starter), BioShock: Infinite is the one game that I not only was eager to fire up to see what happened next, but also one I wanted to re-play, just to go back and see what I missed.
The BioShock franchise has a reputation for innovative gameplay, for engaging storylines, and for creepiness, and this release did not disappoint. The artwork is staggeringly beautiful, and the character realization absolutely top drawer. The clothing of the ride-along NPC, Elizabeth, slowly degrades as the story goes along. Her clothing gets dirty, torn, stained, until finally she must find something else to wear and that outfit slowly degrades. Moreover, instead of just an NPC who’s helping you out against the bad guys, Elizabeth is crucial to the plot, an actor in the storyline.
B:I’s gameplay is also a step above the others. While not a full “open world” concept where you can go wherever you want and collect missions to do in whatever order you choose, B:I is a hybrid. Yes, there’s a “Golden Path” to follow for the main story, but there are also side missions that you can take on. The interaction on those side-trips could have used more work, but they were a good addition nonetheless.
The storyline in B:I is also well-wrought, filled with twists, with clues and revelations, with pathos and surprises. More to the point, the story doesn’t follow a traditional gaming arc that ends with the standard Full Stop, Tada, Yay We Won! The end if B:I is ambiguous, encouraging you to rethink the whole plot, and actually opens the BioShock world for more and more expansions and releases. The reason Halo and GOW had to go to prequels is because they’d already closed off their exits in previous titles. BioShock has done the opposite, providing itself with myriad possibilities, tying itself back to previous releases, but not defining itself by them.
The depiction of women in this title is more even-handed than in any other title. There are strong female story characters as well as weak–just like the male story characters–and, while the NPC Elizabeth is shapely, comely, and basically acts only in a supportive role, she is treated with respect by the story and with tenderness and understanding by the POV character. Could she have been treated as more of an equal by the POV? Yes, but that would also have been in contradiction to a story set in the year 1912. In this case, I think the game hit on a good mixture in this regard.