UPDATED: Crysis (complete) vs. Bioshock (incomplete)

UPDATE:  Rock, Paper, Shotgun pointed to an excellent article over at Gamesetwatch on the design in Crysis’ first half. Manveer Heir, game designer at Raven Software, boils down my own feelings on both that first half and the problems later in the game much better than I was able to and I highly recommend you take a gander at what he was to say.

Much has been said about Crysis‘ story, mostly regarding its lack of originality and sub-par scripting.  Even more has been said about it’s ridiculous system requirements so I’m not going to touch on either of those except to say that the story isn’t amazing and that the game runs great on my rig until the final level when things go downhill.  What Crysis does well, especially in the beginning, is disguise its linear progression in a fairly open world.

The trick is that world is open at all. You’re on rails, they’re just very forgiving rails. Missions typically consist of getting from Point A to Point B, an obviously linear progression, but that tactics and means you use to do that are, more or less, up to you. Do you go the stealthy route? Using your suit and cloak to slip by enemies or do you maliciously slaughter your enemies in an almost sociopathic quest to leave no one alive behind you (Hint: I chose the latter).

I did see some complaints about the ineffectiveness of Crysis weapons a point I disagree with. Most enemies well take anywhere from one to three shots (in the head) to kill. The higher numbers on that end are for helmeted enemies and the fact that using a silencer degrades range and stopping power. It also discounts the exosuit enemies later in the game. I chose to snipe enemies from afar using foliage and and my cloak to sneak around enemy strongholds and sow death and confusion in my wake. It is sad but it took me nearly the entire first half of the game to realize I could switch my rate of fire. Once I realized I could use single shot my sniper tactics so an almost exponential improvement.

The game features a entertaining, if not entirely useful weapon modding systems. That lets you attach various tactical items to guns. Laser sights, flashlights, various scopes, a grenade launcher and a dart gun round out your options. Each set-up plays to different tactical approach to combat that turns out to work pretty well. I am less keen on multiple ammo types (I think it only applies to one gun) and am uncertain how effective the incendiary rounds are. Combining weapon load out with the suits functions enhances combat quite a bit. For example the shotgun and strength power (or a sniper rifle) reduce recoil and improves aim at the cost of armor.

It’s only a shame that all this becomes mostly useless for the last half of the game. The alien enemies feel a lot stupider than the human enemies and what was fun stealth/action combat turns into a more straight forward run and gun affair. Combine that with missions that jar with the rest of the game, in particular the hover-jet mission, and you have an overall weakening of what I found to be the games core strengths. Regardless I found the game a blast and I can see myself going back and playing the first half again sometime in the future. More than anything else, and shortcomings aside, I had fun playing this game which, when you come right down to it, is what games are all about.

This core element, unfortunately, is what brings us to Bioshock. vLauded by the gaming community at large as an artistic triumph, Game of the Year level product and my expectations for both story and gameplay were, needless to say, rather high. At first glance Bioshock does indeed seem to be all its cracked up to be.  That lasted until my first Big Daddy fight.

I remember reading about the Big Daddies in the pre-release furor of the game and their advanced AI, and general badassedness and I would say that both are spot on.  A fact that turns out to be a bad thing.  Since Big Daddies take a beating to be taken out, their resistance to all forms of attack (both your powers and your weapons) combined with the general scarcity of ammo combine into a foul tasting brew.  Throw in the fact that you need to take out Big Daddies to get at Little Sisters, arguably the most important part of the game, and I’m railroaded into doing something I don’t want to do.

I know what your saying.  I’m complaining because the game is hard.  That is true to an extent but the Big Daddy fights aren’t fun.  Not fun at all and even more of a drag since you can’t really say no to them.  There are other problems with combat since the splicers are actually quite dumb.  As a result combat swings back and forth from the incredibly easy to the frustratingly difficult.  The splicers suffer from “Diablo syndrome;”  they occasionally look different but for the most they feel like the same enemy, different skin or color, but the same enemy.

The level design isn’t fantastic.  Rapture is fascinating from an architectural standpoint, and it oozes atmosphere, but more often than not that appearance is more like a disguise hiding the traditional Doom-inspired linear level design.  Indeed even the recordings you find on your path are an element ripped straight out of Doom 3.  The story is interesting, and I’m at least curious as to what happened, what is going on, and who exactly our main hero is.  The flashes of memory(?) you get serve as a passable means of keeping you engaged in the story.  Interesting yes, but it wasn’t enough to make me want to keep playing.  With books to read, other games to play, a backlog of DVRed television, not to mention two jobs means what I’m playing has to entice me back and Bioshock just didn’t do that for me….at least until I started cheating.

I’m not using god mode, or infinite ammo instead I’m using a cheat that gives me $200 dollars every time I press the F10 button.  Indeed my enjoyment of the game has gone up considerably as a result.  Ammo is no longer scarce, but it isn’t exactly abundant either.  The long stretches from a vending machine have little to no ammo drops so I find myself low on ammo in some cases.  Special (electric buck, rockets, etc.) ammo is still scarce enough to force me to be careful with it but I no longer worry about things too much and can throw myself into Big Daddy fights with suicidal glee.

It doesn’t resolve all my complaints with the game and doesn’t address the fact that your powers never really feel totally useful.  Sure they’re interesting, they have some viable non-combat use, but I never really feel like I need them.  The game is atmospheric and creepy but never outright scary (Aliens vs. Predator and Eternal Darkness are the two games the scared me the most).  The recordings used as fluff are fun, as they were in Doom 3, and a great way to introduce story without breaking the flow of gameplay.  The lack of cut scenes leaves you in the drivers seat for the whole game, an admirable acheivment, that helps eliminate the presence of the 4th wall that video games typically share with other entertainment mediums.

I still don’t think the game is as amazing as everyone said it was.  But what the game does in terms of story and narrative is inevitably dragged down by the gameplay.  I plan on finishing the game, not because I enjoy it, but because I want to see how the story ends.  Which is why Bioshock, in my opinion at least, fails as a game.  Because, given a choice between Bioshock the game and Bioshock the novel (if it existed), I would inevitably choose the novel.

Bioshock and Crysis making an interesting side by side comparison because their faults are complimentary.  Where Crysis lacks in narrative originality Bioshock shines, where Bioshock lacks in polished, balanced gameplay, Crysis shines.  Both games seem to pander to a different audience: where fans of Deus Ex and System Shock 2 will inevitably gravitate towards Bioshock, fans of Far Cry (duh!), Half-life and more traditional shooters will gravitate towards Crysis.  Both games work, and work especially well when they focus on their strengths, but seem to fall apart when you scrutinize their faults.

I’ve wandered a bit further afield than I intended to.  Regardless of my dissapointment with Bioshock I am enjoying my experience with the game and hope that things improve more as I go on and more of the story is unearthed.  Crysis was fun to play and I highly recommend it on looks alone if you can run it.  The early gameplay, while familiar to anyone who played Far Cry, is made fresh and interesting thanks to the addition of the exosuit powers.  Both have demos at least (for the PC versions) so you can try out both before taking any kind of monetary plunge and a highly recommend you give both a try.  All in all both are good games the fall shy of great thanks to a number of shortcomings.

Steam and Crysis

My poor 360 has relegated to a Rock Band station as of late (ok that demo of Dynasty Warriors: Gundum was somewhat distracting) mainly because I’ve been bushwhacked by Valve’s Steam.  Microsoft’s Live is a great service: player coordination, demos, original games, new content, and achievements are a pretty succinct summary of what it offers.  I think however, that I might like Steam better.

First of all it made switching to the new PC almost too easy.  Since all of Valve’s games are tied to Steam only had to download the service and log into my account.  After that I just picked my games and Steam did the rest (downloading and installing them all).  Simple as pie.

Next is Steam’s growing collection of of digitally distrubted titles.  Most recently we saw the Unreal titles, and Atari’s back catalog added.  Other companies offer a damned fine selection through Steam as well:  almost all of iD Softwares back titles are in there (every Doom title, every Quake title, Wolfenstein, and even Commander Keen), Activision (Call of Duty), THQ (STALKER, Company of Heroes), and more all available to download at the click (or several clicks) of a mouse.  The GUI for Steam is familiar to any computer use and certainly less convoluted than the over abundant sliding menus on Live.

I managed to pick up Bioshock for $29.99 so I’m working my through that at the moment.  I picked up Prey, on sale this last weekend, for $4.95.  I couldn’t argue with that price.  Most of my time, when not playing Rock Band or getting my ass handed to me in Team Fortress 2, has been dedicated to working my way through Crysis.

It won’t win any awards for original story but between gorgeous graphics, solid physics, and open ended gameplay that let’s you approach the game how you want it is a damned fine title and probably the best single player FPS I’ve played in a while.  There are parts in the game I’ve had issues with (the zero gravity section was annoying, and an escort mission that sucked) but they are mostly the sections that move away from that open-ended element.  There is a certain thrill as I assault a KPA base in my cloaked powersuit taking out soldiers one by one with my silencer equiped, laser sighted, sniper scoped assault rifle (did I mention the weapon modding system, fun).  Or sneaking up behind a humvee and nailing the auxiliary fuel tank with a few well-placed shots and watching the KPA soldiers scramble from the soon-to-be flaming wreckage.

The game was certainly stronger before I started fighting the aliens.  Things have gone too far towards the run and gun style and I miss having to actually think about how I want to approach (or avoid) a fight but we’ll see if things don’t make a comeback.  Regardless I still recommend  the title if you’ve got enough machine to run it.  I’ll have some final thoughts on the title once I’m through and some on Bioshock once I’ve gotten a bit further in than I am right now.