The 2007 Preview (part two)
In last week's opening segment of play.tm's '2007 Preview' we whipped the covers of expectation from a selection of potential gaming gems inbound over the coming year, with the likes of Assassin's Creed, Mass Effect, God of War, and Super Mario Galaxy all thus-far looking every bit like advance candidates for the coveted title of 'Game of the Year'. Yet, the games we've already highlighted are just half the story in terms of mouth-watering potential - there are so many more - so join us as we once again lay to rest a largely disappointing 2006 by turning this year's focus to another gathering of high-profile titles.
Publisher: Take 2 Interactive/Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Irrational Games
Platform: Xbox 360
Release: 23 June 2007
Jump for joy, dear people, because Bioshock is just what the yawning genre doctor ordered: yet another first-person shooter to squeeze in amongst the masses of upper (and lower) tier releases that continue to recycle dull narratives and uninspiring action with a sugared glaze of fresh weaponry. However, every now and then an FPS arrives that promises to break the genre's rules, push its boundaries, and redefine its content, and Irrational Games' Bioshock with its eerie and tragic vision of a failed underwater utopia, may well be in line to join the strictly limited ranks of those first-person shooters that play long in the disc tray and live longer in the memory (read: Half-Life and Halo).
Irrational has built Bioshock on the premise of giving FPS fans a compelling gameplay mixture delivering exactly what they're expecting in the first instance, only to then juxtapose those fundamental aspects with sandbox RPG influences where the power of choice transcends the established FPS blueprint. Sound intriguing? Yes, of course it does, but can Bioshock follow through by converting considerable pre-release intrigue into a tangible genre-busting entrant to gaming's most over-populated arena?
Plot wise, Bioshock opens with the player afloat in the ocean as the sole survivor of a horrendous plane crash, which is a nice way to kick off proceedings. An unfortunately ill-timed watery grave is not the player's destiny, however, and a distant lighthouse (and a quick swim) soon provides invaluable shelter and an entrance to the mysterious submerged city of Rapture.
And here's where Bioshock promptly guides the player along familiar FPS roots before whipping the carpet of expectation out from beneath their feet. Set in the 1940s, Bioshock's Rapture is a gloriously creepy and decrepit utopian haven where the pathetic (and dangerous) remnants of the city's populace wander its many decks in search of Adam, a once easy to obtain (drug) commodity that can now only be harvested from the corpses of the dead that litter the city. More potentially disturbing is that the only inhabitants able to process said Adam are girl-like creatures called Little Sisters. From the player's point of view, the continuous acquisition of Adam is vital to upgrade specific 'Plasmid' abilities (used to aid progress in the quest to uncover Rapture's mysteries) ...and here is where gameplay choice and consequence becomes paramount to expanding the FPS experience.
For example, in any standard FPS, something as integral to progression as Adam wouldn't be difficult to obtain from a moral perspective, with some nefarious beastie willingly accepting death to give up the good stuff. However, Bioshock's Little Sisters are clearly innocent vessels frightened for their lives, and doling out violence to secure Adam suddenly becomes a crux for the player - especially as each Little Sister is accompanied by a Big Daddy, a sizable armoured sentinel that will gladly attempt to decapitate anyone foolish enough to attack their vulnerable charge. This, of course, means that players must decide whether to take on the might of the Big Daddy or exercise their grey matter to have the Little Sisters deliver Adam some other way.
Irrational Games' is pushing Bioshock on its flexibility, its familiarity, and its overt willingness to expand upon preconceived first-person rules. And if those values can be delivered come the day of its release, then Bioshock's stunning next-gen visuals, beautiful styling, and tense atmospherics should see it rise to the surface of the FPS pool of slag and flotsam.
Title: Too Human
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Silicon Knights
Platform: Xbox 360
Release: March 2007
Although the whole 'third-person sci-fi' hype machine may well be centred around BioWare's epic Mass Effect in 2007, Too Human from developer Silicon Knights (Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem) could prove a worthy dark horse alternative for your gaming pennies - well, that is, if interested consumers can look past the familiarities that Too Human bears to Mass Effect.
In Too Human, players assume the role of Baldur, a Cybernetic God, and are subsequently thrown headlong into a hectic war that could see the complete demise of mankind. Moreover, the deadly influence of an ancient machine presence subsequently sees Baldur responsible for the defence of mankind from the merciless attacks of terrifying war machines intent on the absolute destruction of all human life. All in all, a fairly similar premise to that offered by Mass Effect in terms of narrative structure - with the exception of the game's central Cybernetic deity.
Too Human is built on the Unreal 3 engine and Canadian developer Silicon Knights is keen to reinforce that the game's "breathtaking" next-gen visuals offer players the chance to become embroiled in non-stop third-person action that involves white-knuckle ranged and melee combat across "spectacular" battles and environments.
More pointedly, Too Human's specific features include a combined synergy of melee weapons and ranged firearms, and spectacular visual effects to accentuate the force of battles. The game also boasts an "Advanced Cinematic Presentation" which sees on-screen environments and the characters therein envisaged with stunning visual fidelity. Combat is also enhanced by dynamic cinematic presentation, while the player is able to integrate elaborate rapid-fire combo moves, which Silicon Knights describes as "easy to learn and rewarding to master."
Ultimately, Mass Effect's layered narrative, innovative character interaction, and sprawling living universe probably doesn't have anything to worry about concerning the shadowy story familiarity seemingly ingrained through Too Human. While its current trailer clips, screenshots, and related media certainly help showcase the experience as a next-gen sci-fi thrill ride, it remains to be seen if Too Human arrives as anything more substantial than a rather shallow slice of hack-and-slash style action. Still, there's certainly a market for the more undemanding action game, and if Dynasty Warriors, Enchanted Arms, and Phantasy Star Universe can find a place on the Xbox 360, then why can't Too Human?
Title: Halo 3
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platform: Xbox 360
Release: Q4 2007
Amazingly, the gaming world's worst kept secret is also its best, and as the speeding media train of speculation, exaggeration, hype, and hysteria continues to gather breakneck speed alongside Halo 3's steady development, there's still scant little known about Bungie's 'Finish the Fight' conclusion to its hugely successful sci-fi trilogy.
Halo 2's frankly shoehorned and groan-inducing cliff-hanger finale left the plot door well and truly open for Bungie and its iconic Master Chief to realise the grand potential that was promised for Halo 2. Amid all the fevered (and inflated) 10/10 review scores, it seems that over enthusiastic critics and Xbox owners failed to properly process the rather obvious disappointment of a poorly conceived dual character storyline that saw players sporadically leaving the satisfaction provided by Master Chief to assume the unfulfilling role of the disgraced Covenant Arbiter.
Plus - and while I'm fighting the urge to unleash a rant here - the staggering action demo footage of Halo 2 shown at E3 2004 never appeared in the final game, and nothing in the final game looked anywhere near as good as that footage suggested. Hmm, early Xbox 360 code perhaps? Was Halo 2 merely a 'filler,' a segue edition to prolong the series through to Microsoft's next-gen console and thereby boost sales potential to its maximum? Was Bungie told to stretch the series through to the emergence of the 360 while still supplying enough of a first-person roller coaster to appease ravenous Xbox owners? Surely not! Microsoft would never stoop so low.
But, stepping off the personal dissatisfaction soapbox for a moment, let's get back to business. The bare bones narrative that presently exists for Halo 3 portrays a volatile last stand agreement between the remaining forces of mankind and the Covenant hordes as they combine against the relentless Flood. However, the prospect of once again splitting game time between the mighty Master Chief and the unappealing Arbiter hangs perilously like a ruinous guillotine capable of sullying everything Bungie hopes to deliver.
Fractured plotlines, unbalanced characterisation, and confusing Covenant-versus-Covenant gameplay aside, there's only one true outcome on the cards for Halo 3, and quite simply, that's nothing short of absolute unmitigated success. The phrase 'license to print money' doesn't apply to a great many videogame products these days (read: Half-Life, the Nintendo DS, World of WarCraft), but Halo 3 is a cast-iron guarantee for Game of the Year nominations galore, belated 'killer app' status, and for completely rewriting the record books both critically and commercially. Anyone backing against it would either be a fool, or a dedicated PlayStation 3 fanboi.
The Halo series has grown exponentially in the time since the original game first arrived, and it has thus far gathered more than 14.5 million units sales globally, logged in excess of 650 million hours of socially interactive, and largely idiot-infested, session play through Xbox Live (Halo 2 held top spot on the Xbox Live chart ever since its release in November of 2004, until the recent Gears of War finally knocked it off). And it's also spawned action figures, books, graphic novels, clothing, and even a - currently stalled - Hollywood movie adaptation under the watchful gaze of one Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings).
It's a given that Xbox 360 owners and Halo fans are all-but assured Halo 3 will arrive with sumptuous high-definition graphics, improved A.I., real-time lighting effects, sprawling levels, brand new weapons, new vehicles, new this, and new that, etc, etc, etc. And those gamers currently drooling copiously while knowing they still have to wait until the close of 2007 before getting their clammy mittens on Halo 3 can always buy Crackdown instead. And why? Well, because, for a limited time only, Real Time Worlds' third-person sandbox action title comes bundled with an official invitation to Bungie's upcoming (spring 2007) multiplayer public beta. What was that about Microsoft stooping to underhanded marketing and sales tactics to fully squeeze every cent and penny from a product?