A True Link to the Past

People love to get on Nintendo for offering the same games over and over again. Such people are, of course, morons but the idea that Nintendo has nothing new to offer is depressingly prevalent. No matter that they make some of the most polished, original games one the market, if they have Mario on the cover you can safely write it off as just another platformer. Which makes the overwhelmingly positive reaction that The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds has received more than a little puzzling. Not that the game isn’t excellent, it absolutely is, but because it is Nintendo’s most blatant mining of its own past.

A Link Between Worlds doesn’t try to hide this. It is unapologetically a follow up to A Link to the Past, one of the two most popular entries in a long running popular series. It uses the same world map, the same enemies and same look for the world of Hyrule. Most of the tools are the same as well. It absolutely drops the player down in the same world. Nintendo has used this trick before, Twilight Princess‘s world is reminiscent of Ocarina of Times‘s world, but it is far from an exact match. It is expanded and more detailed. ALBW’s world is not expanded from the original at all. It is simply the same.

Where the massive praise comes from is the change in structure the game features. One of the immutable rules of the Zelda series is that the player receives new weapons or tools in the dungeons. Usually the exact one needed to beat that dungeon or to reach the next one. After the first few dungeons, ALBW throws that out. You get your tools by renting, then buying them from the traveling salesman who has invaded Link’s home and set up shop. This lets the second half, more really, of the game be completely open. The player is free to tackle the dungeons in any order. While there is certainly a preferred order, an easier order, it is absolutely not forced on the player.

This contrasts with the last Zelda game, Skyward Sword for the Wii. While I was and am a big fan of that game, player freedom was not high on its list of objectives. The player was often forced down the one path available and if there was any confusion, the ever present Fi would forcibly point the player in the right direction. It was a good game despite that, but its hand holding greatly annoyed many people. So Nintendo fixed that.

ALBW is easily the most open Zelda game since the original. It respects the player. Unlike the vast majority of games these days it lets players find their way their own. There are hints to be found but never are they forced on the player. It is surprisingly refreshing. It is just easy to play. By the time I had but two hours in on this game, I had a full complement of tools and was ready to solve any puzzle and find any secret.

It helps that the game plays buttery smooth. Link speeds through the world. Everything moves effortlessly at a lightning pace. Trying to play, for instance, Oracle of Seasons after playing this shows just how pokey those old handheld games were. The graphics may be in an ugly style, they try too hard to echo LttP’s look, but they are well composed. And the music is par for the series as far as excellence goes.

A Link Between Worlds really highlights the best of Nintendo. It shows players the past and why Nintendo was great, then does something completely new for the series. The past is a framework that colors players expectations. It is a familiar backdrop for Nintendo to experiment with. Creating a freeform Zelda in a new version of Hyrule is more risky than exploding long held gameplay conceits in the guise of a sequel to what is maybe the most popular game in the series. Between this and Super Mario 3D World, Nintendo has shown that they still have the magic that made their golden reputation.

Still a Super Mario World

Super Mario 3D World was the best game to come out last year. There was some fierce competition, most of it from Nintendo themselves. A Link Between Worlds was great and The Wonderful 101 was something special. Still, 3D World was better. At this point, excellence is so routine to the Mario series it is expected. Somehow, Super Mario 3D World still surprises with it quality.

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While the game largely plays the same as the seminal 3DS’s Super Mario 3D Land, 3D World does feature ton of new stuff. There are new power-ups, most notably the catsuit and the double cherry. Both of those work well with the main focus of the game: the multiplayer. Like the New Super Mario series, 3D World is designed for up to four players. While making a 2D game, like NSMBU, accessible for multiple players is relatively easy. The game usually only has to track the players across one plane. Creating a 3D game with single screen multiplayer is much more difficult. 3D World accomplished this, primarily by fixing the camera high in the sky.

The problem with that method is that it makes some jumps hard to judge. Not impossible, but it is occasionally unclear where exactly where Mario is. This problem is becomes bigger with a full four characters on the screen. The camera doesn’t track any one player’s movements, so sometimes you end up in the background, trying to complete difficult jumps blind. This would be a huge problem if it weren’t for the game’s most prominent power-up. The catsuit gives the player a ton of leeway on those jumps, since it lets the player climb on things. It is extra mobility in a game all about mobility.

Even with that, multiplayer can get hectic. That is where the double cherry comes into play. No, it doesn’t alleviate the confusion of multiplayer, it multiplies it. In single player the cherry duplicates can be hard to track, it is nigh impossible with extra players. This is far from a bad thing. They craziness happening on the screen turns a delicate ballet of speed and momentum into an overcrowded party.

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Both of 3D World’s signature power ups play with the constraints of multiplayer. The biggest “new” feature of the game is also focuses on that. The Super Mario Bros 2 gang is present in 3D World, along with their unique gameplay styles. Mario is the all-around character, Luigi jumps the highest, Peach floats and I guess Toad runs the fastest. I mean, who uses Toad?

All the focus on multiplayer did not cause the single player to suffer. All the things that help the multiplayer also work well in single player. The double cherry is fun every time it shows up, and the catsuit is fits naturally in with Mario’s usual power ups like the fire flower. The greatest boon are the multiple characters. Switching from character to character drastically changes how you approach levels. Peach acts as an easy mode, with her ability to float to out of reach collectables . 3D World is genuinely smartly designed, with elements that work with each of its different styles of play.

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All this and I didn’t really mention that the difficulty curve is pitch perfect and that the level design ranges from great to inspired. Or how the music is delightfully jazzy. Really, the game is just about perfect. Mario is still the king. Since Nintendo tends to limit their Mario releases to one per subseries per console, it will likely be a while before we see another Mario game. I am more than happy to savor this one for a while.

The End of the Future(ama)

Title Screen

Last year Comedy Central aired the last, at least for now, episode of Futurama. It is not the first time Futurama has ended. Or the second. For a show as consistently excellent and intelligent as Futurama, it seems to get cancelled a lot. Unlike when it was dumped by Fox or the uncertainty after the movies, this time I think I am ready to let it go. It feels like time. Very rare is the show that runs exactly as long as it should. Too often great shows are cancelled early, like Firefly, but just as frequent are great shows that run until they aren’t great anymore, like Scrubs or The Office. Futurama was once the first and by ending now keeps itself from being the second.

Many say that the new Futurama was not as good as the old, and I am sympathetic to this line of thought. There is something different about the Comedy Central episodes. They seem freer, in both good and bad ways. The Fox episodes felt more constrained in what they were allowed to do, especially in regards to sexual references. That constraint in gone. But the episodes also felt more tightly written, as though being told that they couldn’t do what they at first wanted to meant that they had come up with something better. There is looseness in the new episodes. Of course, maybe I feel that way thanks to the much looser animation. That looseness made the quality of the individual episodes more variable. If I were to rank all the episodes from best to worst (an endeavor I attempted just before the show started back up) I am sure than most of the bottom 10 would be from the new stuff. However, I also suspect many new ones would be near the top. The middle of the road episodes are all old Futurama.

The thing is, I don’t think the show was slipping. This wasn’t Family Guy coming back as a shambling homunculus of a once hilarious show. The Futurama writers were near the top of their game. The worst of the new stuff were the first few episodes right at start. They felt like an ace throwing warm up pitches. There is greatness there, plenty of movement on the fastball but the velocity isn’t quite there. Soon, though, they found their groove. The last ten episodes or so were largely great.

Still, there were hitting a point where they were largely retreading old ground. How many times can Fry learn that maybe his family did care about him? How many times can he or Bender make a deal with the Robot Devil? To be fair, nearly every time they went back to an old place they brought something new with them. The show wasn’t running out of ideas, but their world was becoming increasingly filled in. Which I why I am okay with seeing it go. What happens now is that characters are twisted into terrible parodies of themselves. That process was already happening to Amy and Hermes. It happened to Zoidberg long ago. While it is likely not their choice, this is a good chance for Futurama, after a nice long run, to go out with some dignity.

Futurama is one of the best shows to air ever on American Television. It was a show that wasn’t afraid to be nerdy; to be actually truly smart. It is the only show with jokes about mathematical concepts and references to science fiction beyond the standard Star Wars/Trek general knowledge. It also wasn’t above being stupid. Philip J Fry may just be the dumbest lead character ever. It was the melding of those two elements that helped make the show great. All good things must come to an end and now is that time for Futurama.

“Space. It seems to go on forever. Then you get to the end and the gorilla starts throwin’ barrels at you.”

A Final Fantasy Disappointment

I just beat Crisis Core Final Fantasy VII. The core of the game is perfectly simple, but they slathered it in a heavy layer of inscrutable junk. It still works, and works well, especially the Materia system. The story, though, is one giant lump of wasted potential. That is true for the entire Compilation of FF7. Crisis Core may be the worst of the lot, though, because it had the potential to be truly great.

I have a different perspective on FFVII than most people. It’s not just that I was a fan of Final Fantasy before VII came, though that is true. However, there is no “I like it before it was cool” feeling that many fans of the SNES games have. I wanted to play FFVII, I thought it looked great. I just didn’t have a PS1. By the time I did have one, VII had skyrocketed in price. Plus, by that point it no longer looked so cool. Why spend the time to hunt down VII when I could find the readily available and better looking IX or Chrono Cross just about anywhere. When all was said and done, I didn’t end up playing VII until 2008. By that time the whole Compilation of FFVII had already come out. I was shocked at how different the game was than even its makers seemed to remember it. Honestly, in many ways it wasn’t hugely different than FFVI. There was change, especially on the visual side but in large part it plays out the same as its predecessor. Cloud was not as angsty as he is thought and while there are a lot of flaws with the localization, the story is easy to follow. All recollections of the game only seem to focus on the series parts of the game, and ignore all the fun goofy crap that made it so enjoyable.

The three parts of the compilation that have been released in the states have been by varying degrees missed opportunities. All, I would say, started with a good idea. Advent Children is the most obvious starting point. A movie sequel had promise. It was well rendered and largely well animated, but the only story idea they seemed to have was to regress the characters to about the midway point of the original game. There is also a seeming weightlessness to everything. Characters fight, but what happens in the fight doesn’t matter until the plot says is does. Cloud and Sephiroth can fight forever with no consequence. The film is pretty but pointless. Still, while largely disappointing it is not irredeemable. Then there was Dirge of Cerberus. Again, they started on some solid footing. Vincent is the probably the one character from FFVII with plenty of room to grow. He is an optional character with an intriguing visual design and cool backstory. Turning that game into a shooter/rpg also fits with what is already established. Too bad the game turned out to be unimaginably horrible. (Note: I only played it for about an hour before I gave up. I am going off of reputation with that statement.)It was a failure in execution, not conception. The one thing both of those had going for them is that they were pretty wide open with what the story could be. Pretty much anything they wanted to happen could. Crisis Core was different.

That is how Crisis Core disappointed me. Assuming you’ve played FFVII, you know how the story ends as soon as you turn the game on. Zack is gunned down by Shinra troops at the edge of Midgar. We know that he never sees Aerith again. They had a chance to make a game with a genuinely tragic story. Other than some established pieces of his story, mostly to do with the relationships with Aerith and Cloud, we know little about Zack coming into the game. The big event they had to build off of was Nibelheim and the apparent death of Sephiroth. That stuff is all here, and it’s good. It’s just all the stuff they have added around it is crap. The stories of Angeal and Genesis are warmed over retreads of Sephiroth, characters whose existence lessens the impact of finding out the Sephiroth himself is a genetic experiment. The conflict with Sephiroth should be the fulcrum of this game, but almost feels more like a side story. The Nibelhiem chapter is lovingly rendered but largely disconnected from the rest of the game.

My biggest problem is that the game I imagined is much different (and in my opinion much better) than the game I played. I wanted more of stuff like the ending, with Zack facing impossible odds but still striving to reach his goal and protect his friends, the whole thing made all the more tragic by the fact that the player knows the whole time it ends in tragedy. I wanted Zack and Cloud on the road, on the run, hounded constantly by Shinra. There is one chapter like that, I wanted more. I wanted to see more of Sephiroth the hero, if he ever was one. As cool as Sephiroth looks, he remains mostly a cipher in the main game; Crisis Core was their chance to correct that.

I wanted more pretty much sums up my experience with Crisis Core, and most of Square Enix’s output for the last half decade. There are good ideas, even good games but they all leave me feeling a little shortchanged. There are glimpses of the company that ruled the PS1. Sure, they had their failures then as well, but they were interspersed with a consistent stream of classics. I liked FFXIII, but it was a deeply flawed experience. FFXIII-2 was a three steps forward, two steps sort of follow up. Both games left me wanting more in a bad way. I wanted to like Crisis Core; the potential for an excellent game is there. Instead, I play a solidly good game. It had some nice combat mechanics, handheld friendly mission set up and was darn pretty. Still, I wanted more.

What I Read in December 13

I had a little more free time than usual in December so I managed to actually hit what had been my average, though I hadn’t got close most months in 2013. Really, 2013 was a disappointing year as far as quantity of books read goes, but I did read some really good books, so I guess it balances out.

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The Race

Clive Cussler & Justin Scott

I’ve generally enjoyed this duo’s Isaac Bell adventures. They aren’t groundbreaking, but they are generally well-plotted and entertaining. The time period, in turn of the 20th century America and a decade or so thereafter, is of great interest to me. The series also tends to focus on cutting edge technology of the time, with this one being focused on a biplane race. Issac Bell, the protagonist, is a little too good to be believed, but no more than many adventure protagonists.

As the title suggests, this book focuses on a race. A cross country airplane race. While Bell and the Van Dorn Detectives are there to investigate a specific threat to the race, there are a handful of other mysteries ongoing at the same time. One of the racers, Josephine Frost, is being hounded by her crazed and vengeful husband, so the race’s sponsor hires the Van Dorns to protect her and the race. The husband, Henry, is a mobster that Bell had an encounter with early in his career. There are some parts of this entry I really liked. Since his fiancĂ© Marian is photographing the race, there is more time for her’s and Issac’s relationship than usual, which allows the reader to see more of somewhat off the job Isaac. There are times when I wish the book was more focused on the race rather than the manhunt since the racers and their stories are more interesting and believable than the villain. That apparent villain, the husband, is almost superhuman. He shrugs off bullets, beats everyone to their destination and survives what should be fatal accidents. But there isn’t much to him other than the fact that he is angry over his wife’s apparent betrayal. Josephine and her lover/mechanic are more interesting, but the whole plot comes off as less than inspired outside of the actual race itself. Then there is the fact that Bell teaches himself not only how to fly, but how to fly as well as the racers in all of twenty minutes. This wasn’t my favorite entry in the series, but it is a fine addition. I’ll likely pick up the remaining Isaac Bell books before the end of the year.

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Catcher in the Rye

J.D. Salinger

I subbed for an English teacher and pulled this off the shelf to read while the kids read. I never encountered it in school, but reading it now, and quite quickly, is seems juvenile. Not necessarily in a bad way, though. Holden is a teenager and he acts like it. He is the perfect expression of teenage angst and rebellion. There is a strong note of self-loathing in him. He hates “phonies” and calls himself the biggest liar. He is one of the “phonies” he hates. He is troubled and desperate and confused. Like many teens. Of course, my reading may be facile, I didn’t have much time with the book, reading it in about 5 hours while supervising jr. high students. I probably need to give it a more careful read.

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The Legend of Luke

Brian Jacques

Of the Redwall books I’ve read, somewhere between five and ten, this is one that strays the furthest from Jacques’ usual formula for assembling these books. The usual story, the part actually starring Luke, only takes up about a third of the book. The rest is kind of an amorphous trek for Martin and some of his friends. The problem is that there is no pressure on Martin’s group, no stakes. They don’t have an adversary and nothing stopping them from going home and trying the trek another time. Luke’s story is more in line with the average Redwall story and while free of surprises still has a solid structure. Luke does have a real goal and trial. It makes for easily the weakest Redwall I’ve encountered. There is just no tension for large parts of the book, the biggest draw seemingly the lure of returning characters Martin and Gonf. I have derided some Redwall for sticking too closely to the formula, but The Legend of Luke shows the dangers of straying too far from it. This one is just kind of dull.

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The Time Machine

H.G. Wells

This is a classic for good reason. The unnamed time traveler goes to the far future, where humanity has evolved into two separate and equally inhuman races. The Eloi are the frail placid surface dweller and the Morlocks, who live underground and appear and act monstrously. This is a rather pessimistic take on the future of mankind; Wells basically supposes that we have no future. That is softened by just how far into the future the events of this story take place. As far a cautionary tales go, it is certainly better than many, such as the bafflingly highly regarded movie Idiocracy. This is a parable designed to strike fear in the low class, not wanting to become monsters, and the upper class, not wanting to become useless. The end result of the imbalance is not good for anybody.

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Mysteries of Pittsburgh

Michael Chabon

I have loved everything else by Chabon I’ve read, but this left me cold. Actually, I pretty much hated this novel. The writing is mostly as good as Yiddish Policemen’s Union or The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Klay. There are frequently sentences that make me a little sick to my stomach at just how good they are. They make me embarrassed by my attempts at writing. In that way, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is just as good as previously read Chabon. What killed my enjoyment is the story. This is the story of a handful of self-centered douche nozzles and their interactions near the end of college. They are not likeable, they are not relatable. They are insufferable. It hurts more because I wanted so badly to like them, to like this book. Maybe it’s just that the experiences of the people in this book are so human, yet so unfamiliar to me. I’ve never encountered people like the ones in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh yet they seem real. They are alien and strange and completely self-absorbed. The central character, Art is at the very least bi-curious, but he seems not usure ofhis sexuality but of himself completely. He seems drawn to the strongest personality in the room. When he is with the other Art, his gay friend sometimes lover, he is entranced with Art. When he meets Phlox, her needy, loud persona grabs him. His vacillation between them seems to be based on which is the least familiar at the time. Maybe I missed something. I hope I did because I want to like this. But I didn’t like the characters so I didn’t care about the things they did, no matter how well written their adventures were.

Now Playing in December

Beaten:

Kirby’s Adventure:
I just had a hankering for some Kirby and this was sitting right on my WiiU. It is such a great game, which I have written before. Good times.

Rocket Knight:
This is the PSN game from a few years ago. It is pretty great; just a solid update of a long dormant franchise. It has that old school edge to it. It just doesn’t rise above good. It is missing that spark to make it really memorable. Still, it’s well worth the time.

NES Remix: Oh man, this game. Sure, it’s just a Nintendo sanctioned rom-hack, but it is a fun rom-hack. I hope it is a sign of things to come. Because as much fun as this game is, it has some stinkers it uses for its challenges. Ice Climbers and Clu Clu Land in particular are terrible, no fun pieces of crap. But Super Mario Bros, Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. work great in this bite sized format. It is just a wonderful dose of full Nintendo nostalgia. At some point I am going to get all the stars, but I’m fun calling it done with some stars left unearned.

Crimson Shroud: I picked this up a long time ago on my 3DS and just sort of lost track of it. It is excellent. For as small a game as it is, there is a ton of world building going on. There is enough going on in this game to sustain a full-fledged RPG, something 30 or 40 hours in length, but it is all crammed into a game that lasts about 10. I am actually shocked that no has made a game so blatantly based off a tabletop game until now. I hope Matsuno is working on something else after this, since he is about the best maker of RPGs.

Bioshock: I just wrote about this. A game as great as its reputation.

Yakuza 3: This is a game that I could see a lot of people just not liking. It is ostensibly a game about Japanese mobsters, but the play spends at least half the game running errands for orphans. I loved it, though I don’t know I have enough to say about it to sustain its own post. The Yakuza series just feels like a modern version of the beat-em-ups I like so much back in the 8 and 16-bit days. I’d call it the modern day River City Ransom. It is pretty much everything I love about video games, including running errands for orphans. I really need to get Yakuza 4 and finally play Yakuza 2.

Orion’s Odyssey: This is the first Kickstarter game that I’ve backed that I’ve actually received. It is a puzzle game with an absolutely charming story mode. You use small shapes to form bigger shapes. It starts off pretty simple, but once you get into the challenge mode it can become downright infuriating, in a fun way. I’d recommend anyone with a DSi or 3DS to go ahead of buy this. It is a pretty great little game.

Final Fantasy XIII-2: Somehow they managed to make a game with a plot that made less sense than FFXIII. That is quite the accomplishment. Still, they did fix some of the problems with the first game. The big one is that they gave the player a lot more freedom. After few hours, large chunks of time are open to the player to explore as one sees fit. The battle system is still a lot of fun and it is surprisingly fun to put hats on monsters. Honestly, though, I think I liked the first game better. Lightning is better than either character in this game, so is Fang and hell even Snow. Still, this is more of a game rather than an experience.

Ongoing:

Popolocrois: This is a fun and charming little PSP game. I’m not sure I am going to stick with it, though. It is something of an amalgam of 2 games and is set into distinct chapters. I finished the first chapter and I’m having a hard time finding the desire to go back and start the next one. It is just clunky enough to be off putting, no matter how charming it is.

Trauma Center: New Blood: Good God this game is difficult. I played through the first three chapters and I’m not sure I am going to be able to beat it. It will be the only Trauma Center game I haven’t beaten.

Earthbound: I finally got going on this. I’ve finished Twoson and got Paula on my team. This game is so damn great. I am intentionally taking it slow because I want to savor it.

Upcoming:

Xenoblade: A half-finished game that I plan to finish off this year. I am slowly recalling just how to play so far this month.

Paper Mario Sticker Star: Another half-finished game that I plan to finish off this year.

Ratchet and Clank Future: The whole Future trilogy is up. I am going to beat all of them in the next few weeks.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds: I got it for Christmas and can’t wait to dive in.

Final Fantasy Crisis Core: I’ve got a well thought of FF game for my PSP and I am going to give a go.

Bioshocked

I played Bioshock recently. Not Bioshock Infinite, this year’s critically acclaimed FPS with a unique setting and a politically charged story, but 2007’s FPS with a unique setting and a politically charged story. Of course, with a game so acclaimed and talked about when it was new, I have little to add to the discussion now. What was most surprising to people that know me is that I played Bioshock at all. I play all kinds of games, just about everything except FPSes. My disinterest in the genre is longstanding; even back when my brother and I found Doom on our uncle’s computer I got bored much more quickly. Still, I like games and Bioshock is so seminal a game that it is hard to be a part of the conversation without playing it. That is how I approach it, as an obligation. I won me over though. Bioshock is a game worthy of its reputation, even for someone who has a decided disinterest in FPSes.

I have played a handful of first-person shooters in my time. My friends moved from multiplayer game to multiplayer game, so I played plenty of Goldeneye, Perfect Dark and Halo 2 at times. I never even pretended to like those games. I rarely complained or anything, I like to play with my friends even if it is a game I don’t particularly enjoy. So I played, having a reasonably good time mostly just due to hanging with my friends. I’ve also played the Metroid Prime games, which are first person, but aren’t really shooters. The last FPS I played was Metroid Prime 3 more than five years ago. The point is, these sorts of games aren’t really my thing and I am far from an expert on them. Still, Bioshock was a wholly enjoyable experience.

Unlike the little bits of other FPSes I’ve sampled, Bioshock’s movement has weight to it. When you swing the wrench, there is heft behind it. Each of the limited, unique weapons has a specific role and feel. The player character doesn’t feel like an unstoppable warrior, he feels like a guy who kind of knows how to shoot a gun. And while the number of weapon are limited, combined with the different kinds of ammo and plasmids gives the player a wealth of options. It really lets the player find their own strategy. I favored a combination of wrench enhancing powers and the fire plasmid. While there are tons of options, any choice the player makes is viable, making for a game that fits to the player’s preference.

The big moral dilemma of the game, whether to harvest or save the Little Sisters, is truly a non-choice. The bonus for harvesting them rather than saving them is small enough that anyone who gives two craps about the story is going to rescue them. To do otherwise is to be a monster for the slightest benefit. There is no dilemma there. One answer is obviously right morally. Anyone looking at it as a moral choice can only do one thing. It is an interesting world building and narrative device, but it is not a moral choice.

The setting is the true star of the game. Rapture is a place unlike anything else in gaming. Looking around the ruins of the great submarine city is entrancing, as is getting to the bottom of just what happened to turn Ryan’s Utopia into the terrifying wreck that it is. Each area makes sense in terms of the construction of the city and is visually interesting. Even if the rest of the game was crap, the setting would be enough to make Bioshock a memorable experience. While I wasn’t as floored by the actual story of the game as most seem to have been, the fact that there seemed to be thought put into it pushes it ahead of most games.

It is really just a truly great game. Even someone who has no interest in shooters should find a lot to love here. I will likely look into the other games in this series, but I’m still not on the shooter boat. They are just not for me.