Category Archives: Review

Devil’s Attorney

I mentioned in my review of Tiny Tower that I felt a bit disappointed that there wasn’t an end to the mindless toil in that particular game.  I began to get that same sensation in Devil’s Attorney after moving into my second new apartment, I felt the familiar dread of buying another set of furniture and chintz and I considered giving it up.

I didn’t, in the end.  The voice acting was funny, the cases were well constructed puzzles and the art style reminded me of Rock Star Ate My Hamster, Day of the Tentacle and Sam and Max.  The final level, a courtroom battle worthy of A Few Good Men or Kramer vs Kramer, came as a surprise, as it dispensed with the static puzzle flavour of the game up to that point and became a randomised series of blow and counterblow. I found that it was easily the most challenging and, for that reason, the most enjoyable.
And, in an age of micro transactions and never ending games that don’t evolve out of their initial rut, it was refreshing for the game to have a defined end. The story was light but held my interest and it was satisfying for it to be wrapped up in some style.
Recommended!
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The Bourne Legacy

This review contains spoilers for the Bourne films.

At the beginning of The Bourne Ultimatum, the killing of journalist Simon Ross sets off a chain of events that lead to a satisfying conclusion to the Bourne Trilogy.  The same event in The Bourne Legacy is the catalyst for a less thrilling story of the other super-soldiers in CIA enhancement programs that make Treadstone and Blackbriar look positively unambitious and slovenly.

We are introduced to Operation Outcome through a few expository scenes and it quickly becomes obvious that all of the enhancement programs that can be linked to Treadstone or Blackbriar are going to be shut down.  What this means in practice is that all of the human resources are going to be liquidated whereas all of the research and paperwork is going to be shifted to some other part of the CIA, where I’m sure it will be safe, to be started again as soon as the fuss dies down.  Of course killing all of your field operatives is a little messy; we’ve seen over three other films that it’s not as easy as it looks and things tend to blow up in the CIA’s face when they try it, but hey, here’s hoping they can do a better job this time.

Operation Outcome is all about infiltrating hard to infiltrate places, like North Korea and Pakistan, with brainwashed sleeper agents.  Outcome agents have also been infected with a targeted virus administered through two pills, a blue pill that increases intelligence and a green pill that makes you physically stronger, heal faster and react more quickly.  It’s not entirely clear why infiltrating spies need super-strength or what Jeremy Renner’s character, Aaron Cross, would be infiltrating as a whiter-than-white all-American GI Joe type, but let’s not quibble over minor details.

It turns out the CIA has learnt something from Jason Bourne; the easiest way to kill the Outcome agents is to switch their medication.   Outcome agent handlers switch the blue and green pills with a single yellow pill and explain to the agents that they’ve changed the medication program.  The pills kill the agents within a few hours, leaving unexplained dead bodies of young, physically fit people all over the world to be examined, investigated, etc., and no other loose ends.  Why the CIA felt the need to have an entirely different pill, with the possibility that the agents might think that it’s a bit suspect, when they could have achieved the same effect by tampering with the blue or green pill is a further mystery.

In comparison to the method chosen to kill Cross the pill switch seems relatively sensible.  Cross has holed up with another Outcome agent in a Log Cabin in Alaska, and after a few hours of ridiculously engineered tension (why did Cross lie?  Why did the other agent take offence?), they hear something on the wind.  Using movie sixth sense, Cross and Agent 3 decide that it’s something weird and start to move to positions away from the cabin, just in case.  Cross is just out of the door when a drone-delivered missile destroys the cabin and Agent 3.  Why didn’t the CIA just supply more fake medicine in the drone, which would probably have been cheaper, less destructive and less likely to fail?  Still, in for a penny and all that, when it fails to work once, the CIA come round for a second pass, and when the Drone is destroyed by Cross with a hunting rifle, they send another drone for a third attempt.  Cross has figured out that it’s the CIA that are after him at this point, so uses some tinfoil and a metal plate to cover up the GPS tracker surgically implanted in his abdomen, which of course he would know about.  Miraculously, this works, and after some quick surgery to remove the tracker and a fight with a wolf to place said tracker in the belly of the beast, Cross is able to evade destruction and makes his way to civilisation, weak from loss of blood, with no supplies, 300 miles from the nearest human being…

I’ll dispense with the rest of the plot for brevity’s sake.  It doesn’t really matter what happens, as you’ve seen it all before, done better, most recently in the other Bourne films.  Morally bankrupt CIA spook and attendant flunkies – Check.  Frightened government functionary targeted for death – check.  The even-more-upgraded-super-soldier sent to kill the protagonist – check.  Rooftop chase in third-world country – check.  What does matter is that the film doesn’t go anywhere and doesn’t resolve in a satisfying way.  The most frustrating thing is that it doesn’t even attempt to do so.  The climax of the film is a chase/fight between Cross and LARX-03, the even-more-upgraded-super-soldier who is introduced an hour before the end of the film, doesn’t say a single word of dialogue and surprises the CIA section head with his existence as much as the audience.  There is no direct interaction between Cross and Edward Norton’s character, Byer, the main antagonist, except in flashback and there is no resolution to their personal story.

All of the antagonists at the start of the film are still there at the end, in much more secure positions thanks to the brutal evisceration of Pamela Landy’s character throughout the film, and the only significant changes to the status quo are that Cross has got a girlfriend and he no longer needs to take the blue and green pills.  The signal to the audience that the film is over is Moby.  I’m not kidding, the first indication that the film is near the end is the synth string opening to ‘Extreme Ways’.  Again.  And then the credits run.

I spent most of the film asking questions that had no reasonable answers.  Why did Cross steal the watch from the factory supervisor?  So he could obviously bribe someone with it later, despite having $40,000 in his jacket.  Why didn’t the CIA kill Marta when they arrived at her house and stage the suicide later?  Because Cross wouldn’t have been able to save her if they had been smart.  Why is LARX-03 still operational when all the other enhancement programs have been shut down?  There’d be no-one for Cross to throw down with in the finale otherwise.  

The film makers had a real opportunity to do something different.  The first three Bourne movies are largely about who Jason Bourne is, both in terms of his real name and identity and what kind of man he was and becomes.  What little thematic interest there is in The Bourne Legacy is based around the same ideas.  Byer talks about how the enhanced soldiers are sin-eaters and Cross struggles with his lack of intelligence before the enhancement, both clearly setting up similar questions of moral culpability and identity, but, as with most things in the film, they are not explored in great depth.  By changing the main character they could have kept playing in the Bourne universe and explored other aspects of the spy genre.  Does it always have to be two people being chased by the CIA?

Maybe that’s the real genre of the Bourne films: two-people-being-chased-by-the-CIA.  That’s where I’ve gone wrong.  If you like two-people-being-chased-by-the-CIA films, you’re in for a treat, easily one of the top four two-people-being-chased-by-the-CIA films of all time.  OF ALL TIME!

The Laundry RPG

In order to read this review you must have signed and dated the 137/22b Review and Records Form, sought a counter-signature from a delegated authority determined by your department, and passed the relevant paperwork to Marcia in Human Resources for processing. 

I’ll wait, don’t worry about it.

No, you need the other form, the 137/22B.  It was updated last week, didn’t you get the email?  Your laptop was eaten by a parasitic, inter-dimensional virus?  Sounds like you already have the requisite field experience, perhaps I should just begin.

The Laundry is based on the science-fiction spy series of the same name written by Charles Stross.  Starting with The Atrocity Archive, Stross has chronicled a world not too dissimilar to our own, with the small difference that vast, alien chthonic gods from alternate dimensions are trying to eat our souls.  Set in the UK it lampoons the bureaucratic nightmare of the civil service through the character and adventures of Bob Howard, a hapless IT technician.  Howard works for The Laundry, a quasi-mystical secret service tasked with defending the realm from the aforementioned hideous beasties and filling in any paperwork associated with aforementioned defending of the realm.

The strength of The Laundry, as a series and as a game, is the diverse and playful setting.  The CERN research centre isn’t flinging tiny elementary particles at each other, for example, it’s true purpose is a sacrificial-goat-fuelled summoning grid and demonic computational engine.  Oh yes, and if CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN ever comes to pass it’ll be a defence bunker for a few thousand people, if that many survive.  The ever present Elder God Apocalypse Event generally only seems a little less inviting than the Auditing Commision inquiry if you overspend on your mission budget, however.  It seems, from a GM’s point of view, that one of the difficulties in running the game would be managing the levels of horror and bureaucracy without falling into a pastiche or spoof of either.

The world of The Laundry is heavily influenced by Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos, of course, but it is also heavily indebted to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the spy fiction of Len Deighton and Ian Fleming, and the classic treatise by the International Standards Organisation, Environmental Management Systems – Requirements with Guidance For Use or to give it it’s snappy title – ISO 14001:2004.  If you’ve played Paranoia you’ll also get shades of that game’s, well, paranoia, security clearances and the idea that technology is not always the most effective answer to every problem.

The Lovecraft influence has also spilled over into the Game’s system, which is a modified version of the Basic Roleplaying System from Chaosium, most prominently featured in Call of Cthulhu.  The majority of it is intact, with characteristics and skills being basically the same, but there are a few additions.  Players have to choose a Personality Type, a Profession and their Assignment within the Laundry.  Each stage allows you to distribute points to your skills based on that selection; a bruiser personality has the opportunity to put skill points in Brawl whereas a Thinker doesn’t.  What this means is that all of the faults of the Basic Roleplaying System are largely intact too, so if you find the system restrictive, clunky or without enough crunch, then you may be disappointed.

The magic system has been changed rather dramatically, The Laundry setting states that the 20th century’s greatest magician was Alan Turing; computers are used to calculate magical spells and tinker with the fabric of Space-Time.  In this age of Android and iPhones there are even magic spell apps, designed to be used on specially jailbroken devices, that cast minor cantrips.  You can use mp3 players and some speakers in a ritual instead of a group of chanters or a set of lasers to create a pentacle if you are so inclined.  Magic can still be cast without technological trappings, but it can be slower and is usually more dangerous.

Along with large amounts of flavour text from the novels and an expansive background section, there are three missions to get you started:  Going Down to Dunwich, A Footnote and The Greys.  The first mission describes a military facility at Dunwich, a Norfolk village erased from the map in the 1940’s by the UK government, and is designed as an introductory adventure to the setting.  The players are cast as new recruits to the Laundry who are sent to Dunwich as part of their initial training.  As might be expected there is a twist, but one that I won’t spoil here.  It is an effective adventure, with plenty of back-doors and GM advice based on the playtesters responses, and does embed the setting firmly in modern Britain.

While the first mission references ‘The Dunwich Horror’ directly, it is actually the second mission, A Footnote, that takes some of the plot of that short story as its inspiration.  The final mission, The Greys, touches on themes of dementia, demonic possession and mistaken identity.  All in all the three missions provide a good introduction to the setting and concepts that are unique to The Laundry, but ultimately, your mileage may vary depending on the type of games your group likes to play. 

The layout is effective, or at least it would be if I was using a print copy of the book.  One of the difficulties of using a pdf is the insistence on a two-column layout for all but a few paragraphs.  I realise that The Laundry is not alone in this, but I do hope that, as more games offer a pdf version or go straight to pdf, that this practice is phased out as you find yourself going backwards and forwards interminably to get from one page to the next.  The artwork is also effective, if limited, being mostly quarter or half page black & white images of various horrific creatures or locations.  It is a bit of a shame that there aren’t more splash pages, as there are some great pieces of art that seem squashed to fit.

I think the key test of licensed games is not whether they would just satisfy a reader of the original material, but whether they would also be interesting and deep enough to play if you hadn’t read any of the source material before picking the game up.  In this, The Laundry succeeds admirably.  There is so much information here that a group would have no problem picking up the feel of the game from the flavour text and system.  While it is derivative of Call of Cthulhu I don’t think The Laundry ever feels like a cheap and quick knock-off or parody.  The balance between humour and horror hits more often than it misses and the references to Cthulhu, Lovecraft and the Elder Gods add to, rather than detract from, the overall Cthulhu Mythos.

Perhaps I am biased, I live in the UK and work with policies, procedures, standards and 137/22B forms all day.  Perhaps I get all the jokes and references that a roleplaying gamer from Little Rock, Arkansas may not get.  Perhaps I should end this review with a caveat – not for consumption outside the UK?  I don’t believe that for a second though.  If you can play an Elven warrior born in the slums of Neverwinter you can play an IT technician bevearing away in The Laundry.

Exalted – Post D&D RPG

In 2001, White Wolf was enjoying a renaissance, it had released revised editions of the World of Darkness rulebooks and looked set to challenge its main competitor, Wizards of the Coast, when they announced a fantasy RPG to rival Dungeons & Dragons. Exalted was released with great fanfare as a prequel to the World of Darkness, set in the ancient Age of Sorrows. The game eschewed the Tolkien milieu that had been the basis for a great chunk of modern fantasy literature and took inspiration from ancient myth and legend, Edwardian high fantasy, and modern manga and anime. Despite the mixed pedigree, the differing influences were woven together with no little skill to produce a complex and original world that felt new and exciting.

Exalted* uses a heavily modified version of the in-house White Wolf Storyteller System. The key differentiator from, for example, Vampire: The Masquerade is that instead of a system of disciplines that grants a unique power for each level you purchase, Exalted allows you to buy any Charm you like, as long as you meet the pre-requisites, which would be based on the players attributes, abilities and other charms. Each charm allows players to supplement or replace an action with a super-power or to perform an action many times after spending essence. There is a subset of charms, called Excellencies, that allow the player to add dice, successes or a re-roll to an action. Usually you can only activate one charm a turn, but after practice and spending experience, charms can be put in special combinations called combos, that allow the use of two or more charms on the same action. For example, you can use an action adding charm with a dice adding charm so that every extra action can be supplemented with extra dice. This simulates the increasing power of Exalted against mortals pretty well, in that Exalted quickly outclass mortals in almost every respect if the player is smart during character creation.

While the general Storyteller System is easy to explain, in practice it can get quite complicated. Combat in Exalted is painful. For each action the player wants to make there is a ten-step method for resolution**. At each step the player has to roll dice or add/subtract successes so each action could take a few minutes to resolve. This isn’t a big problem when only a handful of combatants are involved, but once you add a few extra action charms and a couple of extra bodies, things can get slow… very, very slow.

The Mass Combat system alleviates some of the problems that come from adding a lot of bodies, but it is only useful when you reach a certain size of encounter. One character takes the role of a General and uses his abilities to attack the opposing forces, who are divided up in to units. The General’s own abilities are enhanced by the unit he is with. This means that if a General is within a unit of Archers, he adds a number of successes and damage dice to his rolls when making ranged attacks based on the units potency. Other players can be nominated as Heroes or Sorcerers who can make melee or ranged attacks respectively for the General if they are better at that sort of thing. It’s a neat idea that really plays up the heroic aspects of Exalted combat and makes the General the focus of the conflict. It does, however, have the effect of sidelining players that aren’t Generals, Sorcerers or Heroes, as there is a limit to the number of special characters in a unit. Those without a role either have to act as Solo character, which can be risky, or hide within the ranks of another unit and effectively not take part in the conflict.

I think we can all agree that combat needs rules of some kind to determine an outcome, but determining the outcome of social conflict through dice rolls is still a relatively novel idea. In Exalted, social combat plays out almost exactly like traditional combat but with the names changed – instead of rolling join battle, Exalted jargon for initiative, you roll join debate; instead of aiming, you monologue or study. While this means that social interaction can be played out between those with charms equitably, it does mean that it leaves little room for role-playing. Even if a player makes a rousing speech that the entire group agrees is awesome, they can only receive a three-die bonus to the roll. A starting character with a social first excellency can easily beat that bonus with a small expenditure of essence. This is the equivalent of Obi-Wan Kenobi waving his hands and stating ‘these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.’ While it works from a simulationist point of view, in that it is clear who won and is based on the relative strengths of the combatants, it doesn’t necessarily feel fair to more narrativist players.

Pop quiz, and show your working, what’s the probability that a player will roll at least six successes with 10 dice? Okay, I’ll start with an easy one, what’s the probability that a player will roll at least two successes on three dice?*** Okay, I’ll start again, why do I need to know how probable things are, as a player or as a GM? As a GM I like to know how difficult something will be for a player in order to make it challenging enough for it to be exciting but not so difficult that it’s impossible. If I don’t have to worry about the mechanical challenge, it gives me time to think of other interesting and exciting things that could be going on in a scene. As a player I’d like to know the comparative worth of adding one or two dice to my dice pool; my choice of how much essence to spend boosting my roll or which charm to use is less meaningful if I don’t have adequate knowledge about the potential consequences.

While it is a good rule of thumb that you need about twice as many dice as successes required to have a 50% chance of success, that doesn’t help if you want to use more or fewer dice as it is extremely difficult to know how much of an impact adding or subtracting dice will have without using advanced statistical modelling or brute force calculation. If you’re trying to save essence for a later encounter, how much can you reasonably get away with not spending and still have a good chance of success? In games like D&D and Call of Cthulhu you have a very clear idea before you roll as to your chance of success, so you can make more meaningful decisions about your actions.

By now I’ve probably lost about half of you. What type of boring nerd wants to know this? In the heat of battle, with stunts and descriptive storytelling, who cares about the probability that you’ll hit that dude with that sword? You’re probably right, players are less likely to care about this sort of thing, but as a storyteller, I think it is important to have at least a good understanding of the difficulty of the encounters you’re building. Herein lies my second problem. What is a challenging difficulty for a player who can roll between 10 and 20 dice on a given action?

If you have players who love to min-max their characters, Exalted is great, and it’s a fun game in itself to determine what gives you the ultimate build in a particular skill/sphere. But, if you haven’t got a group of players who want to do that, or worse you have a mixture of power-gamers and normal players, how can you balance encounters? One character will have five ten-die attacks that can hit for 14 dice of damage, a Defence Value of 9 (meaning you require nine success to hit them) and a soak of 13 (Meaning you get rid of 13 damage, to a minimum of one), the other has one 6-die attack that can hit for 5 dice of damage, a Defence Value of 5 and a soak of 4. If you make it challenging for the first character, there’s a very real chance you’ll kill the second, and if you make it challenging for the second, you risk killing the former with boredom. Balancing encounters is made all the more difficult because there is a staggering lack of a decent bestiary or ‘monster manual’ to throw at players.

The argument follows that the GM should encourage players to take combat skills to ensure they reach a minimum level, but that involves taking choice out of the players hands and reducing the number of interesting decisions they can make about their character. The rulebook recommends that players should all take at least one level of Ox-Body Technique, a power that increases the amount of damage that can be taken, why not just make it a standard power and reduce the number of options available?

Given the dizzying number of charm choices, and the way that the castes have been designed, players are more inclined to roll up characters that excel in different roles. But, instead of the traditional fighter, mage, cleric, thief set, Exalted is geared around players dominating particular spheres, so you could have a character that is a combat monster, a social monster or a crafting monster. Each of these roles complements the other in general, but in specific situations, there is little opportunity for synergy. What effect can a social or crafting character have in combat situations? What does a combat monster do in a social situation? While they may be able to make minimal contributions, a bruiser might be able to intimidate an underling, they are relegated to less than secondary roles during those encounters. While the players can make contributions before the event, social characters can try to persuade the group to lay down their arms or crafters can create better weapons, once the fighting starts they are left with little to do. Again, the argument would be that players should be encouraged to create rounded characters, but this just means that they end up being uninteresting clones of each other.

Perhaps you should ignore the rules you don’t like and play Exalted a bit more loosely? Concentrate on the story and it’ll all work out, right? The problem with this is that the players abilities are so closely tied to systemic enhancements it is difficult to describe player powers in any other way. Because the game is built around Exalted characters who are defined by their charms to a great extent, removing the ability to use those charms makes it impossible to play an Exalted character! There are charms for each step of the combat sequence, so if I take out certain steps to simplify combat I’m potentially hobbling someone’s character. If I try to ignore the rules for social combat I have to judge myself whether or not a player can influence an NPC. There is always the temptation to rig the encounter, depending on how the encounter is ‘supposed’ to go, whereas the more fair solution is to let the dice fall where they may.

The other problem with simplification in favour of quick and easy gameplay is that the Exalted world has been designed from the ground up with the idea that the Exalted have the power to shape and define Creation. Once you start chipping away at the edges you start removing some of the most interesting and fun narrative ideas in the system. If I say that Sidereal martial arts are too complicated and difficult to manage and get rid of them, well, then I’ve taken away one of the defining traits of the Sidereal Exalted. It’s one of the great successes of Exalted that every aspect of Creation can be influenced by the player characters, and the system is detailed enough that those interactions are fairly arbitrated. The detail in Exalted, it’s greatest strength from a storytelling point of view, make it complicated and difficult to run. Removing or altering elements to make it more manageable actually makes the setting less interesting at the same time. If you want your character to have interesting and unique charms, then you need a certain level of detail to ensure that not every charm is essentially ‘does x damage and has minor side-effect’.

Exalted is roleplaying without the training wheels, turned up to 11. It is no wonder that White Wolf challenged players to ‘Graduate’ their game from D&D, as Exalted is orders of magnitude more complicated to play than the offering from Wizards of the Coast. Whereas D&D has a reputation for complexity it is relatively easy to play, especially 3.5 and 4.0, and only character creation is moderately difficult, Exalted is exactly the opposite, character creation is a breeze, but resolving anything can be soul-crushingly time consuming. For those willing to put the effort in to learn the system, this time is reduced enormously, but it is a very steep learning curve.

*I’m largely talking about 2nd Edition throughout.
** This can go up to 16 steps if a counter-attack is involved.
*** It’s 0.46.

In Time

The great question that drives Sci-Fi literature is what if?  In Time posits the scenario that it is possible to arrest a person’s physical deterioration in the prime of their life at 25.  The only downside is that Time, not money, becomes the global currency.  Everyone is gifted a single year at birth, which starts to run down the moment the individual reaches twenty-five, and can get more Time by working.  To keep track of your remaining Time, a subcutaneous green LED is installed in your arm, a handy torch in times of need but a lousy way of conspicuously showboating your wealth.

What if you could live forever?

Time as a currency is a great concept, and the film tries to explore what that would mean for the people living in that type of world.  The bits that work in this film are those examining this conceit, the idea that people are now explicitly working to live is heavy-handed but effective and the global cabal of super-rich immortals managing the system is intriguing.

One of the great joys of any sci-fi film is to see how the world has been altered from our own and trying to figure out the reasons for those alterations.  If you can see how the filmmaker’s choices flow from the ‘What If’ then the film is halfway there.  Problems arise when the choices don’t appear to be obviously related to the central premise or directly contradict what reasonable viewer might expect in the circumstances.  As I watched In Time I started thinking about the choices made by the filmmakers and came up with a few questions about the world itself.  I think in the main the world of the film behaves consistently, but I just think it is consistently incorrect in its basic premises of what a Time based economic future world would look like.

Where are the mobile phones?  There are a bunch of times in this film when using a mobile phone would save countless lives.  Where have they all gone?  The conceit that a minute of talk time would cost not just a minute of your life but also an additional minute to pay for the call is pretty funny and dark.  It would destroy the tension in the film though, so mobile phones have uninvented in the In Time universe.  The Internet also appears to be completely absent from this world too, but that’s not a major plot point….

Why are some time transactions done wirelessly and some require physical contact?  Why store Time in vaults?  It’s shown that individuals can easily wire Time from one location to another, so why would you need to store Time physically?  And if you can wire Time electronically, why can’t you wire from one individual to another?  The Time system employs contactless technology, why isn’t it possible to control Time via a mobile network?  It would be easier to control the masses if you could easily freeze their assets, so to speak, and also ensure that you’re never caught short away from the bank, as so often happens in this film.  Again, current technology has been uninvented to make the story work.

How do people younger than 25 pay for anything?  It is clearly shown twice that the individuals clock only starts running at the age of 25, and in both cases it is clear that they are starting with exactly one year left to run.  How have they managed to survive for so long without being able to buy anything or gain any additional Time?  I’m guessing that the world doesn’t allow under-25’s unrestricted access to anything they want, so do they have rationed supplies or some other means of sustenance?  If I knew that my clock was running at 25, I’d want to get a head start and start working early, but that doesn’t seem to be an option.

Why set up the system in such a way that people can steal time so easily?  Firstly, in the middle part of the film the protagonists go on a bank-robbing spree in a series of jobs that clearly echo Bonnie & Clyde.  Given that they are amateurs, with only two pistols, and that current banks are sophisticated buildings designed to stop that sort of thing, why are the future banks so easily robbed?  Have people forgotten how to lock safes? Secondly, throughout the film it is shown that you can steal Time from individuals by making physical contact, it is even implied that you could steal Time from someone sleeping without their consent.  A sure-fire way of protecting yourself from physical harm is to ensure that there is no way to steal Time this way.  I could understand if there was a piece of black market technology employed by the Minutemen to steal Time, this would actually be pretty cool, but there is no explanation for the ridiculous ease of Time stealing.

Aside from the Time Keepers, can anyone else alter the amount of Time someone has?  Could someone hack himself or herself to become immortal?  Clearly the Time Keepers are monitoring the amount of Time in the system, but enterprising ‘criminals’ would sure devise a method of counterfeiting/laundering Time, given the shoddy nature of the banking sector.

Why do people just stop?  Is there a kill switch implanted in the individual?  Leaving aside the ridiculous notion that any sane person would willingly allow themselves to enter into this devil’s bargain, how is this regulated?  Has the entire human race been genetically engineered to work this way or is the technology implanted at birth?  As it is a global economy, I’d assume that the human race has been genetically engineered with this kill-switch, otherwise there would be an out for anyone willing to have a natural birth, and who wouldn’t want that in the ghetto of Dayton?  If you could eke out a subsistence existence from the land, why get involved in the Time economy at all?  Why subject your child to the horror of this system?

I’m trying to think of why some of these things are the way they are, and I think its because the film maker’s want to use the way Time as a currency works as a direct metaphor for how Money works now.  Because of this they have to have Time be as easily disposable, stealable and storable as money is now.  Money can be in the form of a coin in your pocket, a series of digits in a computer or a block of gold in a central bank.  In Time wants to mirror these so that it can have bank robberies, Time theft and still have a massive linked global economy, but the problem is, if you were to start from scratch, which they obviously would need to do, why would you copy the current system?  All of its flaws are obvious and could be designed out if you could start again.

If you were in this situation where people are clearly dying around you, you had an ever present clock telling you when you were going to die and nothing to lose except the eight hours you had left, why the fuck wouldn’t you try to take something back from the bastards who have everything?  This is my main problem with this film.  One of the things that stops revolutions is the fear that you’ve still got something to lose.  If you’ve clearly got nothing to lose, or at the least only a few hours left to live, why wouldn’t you do something about it?  Dayton is a shit place to live, where there is essentially nothing to do except be jumped/killed by gangsters and/or work in a crappy job which screws you over when you don’t make quota.  The world isn’t shown to be oppressive enough to stop any sort of real resistance, as the first two that try are a metal shop worker and a dizzy socialite and they succeed in crashing the global economy without any support.  The question isn’t why they succeeded, but why no one else tried before them?  I can’t think of a reasonable answer.

Bioshock

‘I Chose Rapture!’

Bioshock descends into darkness from the very beginning, both literally and figuratively; the crash that deposits you in the middle of the ocean is just the start of the visceral horrors that you face in the deep.

The world of Rapture is at once familiar and bizarre. A mixture of 30’s and 40’s propaganda litters the bloody streets of the claustrophobic tubes and bathyspheres that connect the gardens, hospitals and arcades, but it’s not Capitalism or Communism that rules in Rapture, it’s Ryanism.

Andrew Ryan is a grotesque figure that is revealed throughout the course of the game to be a despotic, visionary recluse. While he built Rapture, and plays a large part in the game, he is obviously not in total control, as there are a number of fiefdoms within the city. The killing of Frank Fontaine, Ryan’s nemesis and head of the criminal underclass, two years ago, that should have cemented his power, led to a full-blown civil war.

Initially your only contact is with Atlas, the leader of the resistance that has risen up against Ryan over the last two years. Atlas’s family has been trapped in a different part of the underwater city and he asks you for help in reuniting him with them. Very quickly you realise that Rapture has gone badly wrong.

Genetically modified humans, called splicers are everywhere. While nominally under the control of Ryan, these crazies have been driven mad by their lust for ADAM, the source of Plasmid power, and have managed to kill most of the normal inhabitants of Rapture. They prey on the Little Sisters, the only beings capable of harvesting ADAM from the dead. Luckily for the Little Sisters, they are protected by Big Daddys, the deadly, diving suit wearing behemoths that have become the game’s iconic figures.

The central choice in the game of Bioshock is how you choose to deal with Little Sisters. If you rescue them you can gain a small amount of ADAM, if you kill them you can take it all. Either way you have to kill the powerful Big Daddys who act as mindless guardians, unaware of your intentions. Perhaps most horrifying, if you do attempt to kill the Big Daddys, the Little Sisters will goad and shout at her guardian to kill you. And they usually do.

Communication in Rapture is done in a number of different ways, but most of the time you’ll be picking up transmissions from your radio and finding audio diaries that are scattered around the city. It is very rare that you hear someone that isn’t using a mechanical device to talk to you, with the exception of Splicers and Little Sisters. This makes every interaction seem either very cold and distant or violently charged. When you actually meet a person face to face the moments are so much more powerful, mostly due to the change in timbre, the heightened reality and the addition of visual cues.

The game does have flaws, although they are really quite minor. It is easy. You will die a lot, but because you are resurrected in nearby Vita-Chambers, you can continue without losing your progress within the game and without resorting to an out of date save. I actually quite like this, as it doesn’t take you out of Rapture. The more time you spend living in the game world, not navigating save game files, the better, as you aren’t constantly shifting from real- to game-world and back. Bioshock is immersive and to be reminded that you are playing a game would destroy some of its power.

Mechanically, Bioshock is not amazing and adds nothing to the FPS genre in terms of technical innovation. Plasmids, additional psychic powers you can develop, are nice but not amazing, the weapons are fairly standard and level design can be sometimes confusing. There is also no multiplayer aspect. It is unfair to concentrate on these and call the game average or even flawed, as the game is not about technical brilliance, unlike, say, Halo 3; its all about great storytelling. It’s like saying that Great Expectations is a terrible book because it doesn’t have a chapter on Dinosaurs or the option to read it from the perspective of Herbert Pocket.

The triumph of Bioshock is that it plays with traditional conceits of computer games in general, toying with the ideas of fate and free will. Atlas asks ‘would you kindly’ do such and such a task, but there is no option within the game not to do it. Instead of ignoring the weaknesses of computer games and the usual linear gameplay options or meaningless dialogue box choices, Bioshock confronts this issue and convincingly deals with it. The stand out scene is the first meeting you have with Andrew Ryan, as it not only shows you why you’ve been doing what you’ve done, it also gives you a truly compelling reason to continue. Rather than fall into the trap of loading the first chapters with exposition and cut-scenes to entice the player in, 2K Games have worked on the whole game and polished Bioshock until it shines with a bloody, crimson sheen.

Other considerations

  • The achievements are fun and range from ridiculously easy (Toaster in The Tub) to insanely difficult (Historian or Tonic Collector)
  • Great soundtrack – A combination of in-game snippets of 40’s/50’s records and by turns beautiful and disturbing orchestration
  • Hacking, Tonics, Plasmids, and Research all extend the life of the game