The Infinite Zenith

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Stay! Stay! Democratic People’s Republic of Korea! Review and Reflection

“Just a small game that I sponsored; simple, short, and hilarious in a silly and campy way. Oh, and I’m also a guest character.” –Akeiko “Daigensui” Sumeragi on Stay! Stay! DPRK

Battlefield 1′s In The Name of the Tsar DLC has only been out for five days, but aside from spending enough time in the DLC to unlock the Fedorov Avtomat Trench and the Parabellum MG14 Suppressive, I’ve got a bit of a confession to make: I’ve been playing through DEVGRU-P’s Stay! Stay! Democratic People’s Republic of Korea! (which I will truncate to Stay! Stay! DPRK! for brevity’s sake) in my open time. An overt parody of Go! Go! Nippon! My First Trip to Japan, Stay! Stay! DPRK! follows the adventures of an American soldier in the Hermit Kingdom; in a manner similar to Go! Go! Nippon!, the protagonist visits North Korea and learns his pen pals are in fact ladies. What follows is a refreshing and hilarious take on a familiar set-up: the player accompanies Jeong or Eunji in touring locations of North Korea, but with more restrictions and jokes. The tour culminates in a visit to Mount Paektu for a soak in North Korean-style hot springs, but things go awry when it’s revealed that Jeong and Eunji are under investigation for harbouring a foreign agent. Depending on what decisions players make, they will either survive or be executed, a darkly humourous take on bad endings in the visual novel genre. During my playthrough, I opted to go with Jeong and see about unlocking her ending first – she’s Stay! Stay! DPRK!‘s equivalent of Makoto, so I figured it’d be appropriate to start here, and after two hours, I’ve completed the Jeong route, which sees the protagonist go at it with Jeong before escaping North Korea and landing in Syria, of all places.

It is worth mentioning that Stay! Stay! DPRK! is by no means an accurate North Korea simulator, but in spite of this, the title ends up providing a fairly informative background on the locations players can visit. On my run of Stay! Stay! DPRK!, I visited Mansudae, Kaesong and Yanggakdo, learning of the details and history of the areas while cracking the occasional joke with Jeong or Eunji (and often, watching the player suffer the consequences of doing so). Minor elements, such as random brown-outs, the extent of state-controlled media, reverence for the Glorious Leader and depiction of antiquated infrastructure and technology in North Korea also add to the atmospherics, although the adventure players experience is quite far removed from the undisclosed human rights violations and recent nuclear tests that have shaped the news. Books, such as Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14, offer a much more sobering insight into what conditions at political camps are like, while news of North Korea’s fledgling nuclear weapons program continue to remind the world that the Hermit Kingdom hides a great deal behind closed doors. In spite of this, or perhaps because of this, Stay! Stay! DPRK! represents a light-hearted opportunity to simulate a tour of North Korea without any risk beyond the initial price of admissions, and ultimately, succeeds in entertaining audiences with its parody.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • I remark that, in this collection of twenty screenshots, I do not have access to the usual 1080p images on ultra or near-ultra settings as is the usual standard for my other posts on games. As a visual novel, Stay! Stay! DPRK! does not have different graphics settings, or even different resolution settings. Some of the images may also appear a little fuzzy on high resolution displays.

  • I recall photographs from textbooks depicting empty shelves in department stores and the like in the old Soviet Union owing to shortages of consumer goods as the USSR placed greater emphasis on developing heavy industry. In North Korea, I imagine that there are always shortages of consumer goods, and grocery stores almost certainly would not look like this. The protagonist comments on this and gets a stern talking to from his “tour guides”, but mistakes are generally forgiven very quickly, befitting of the atmosphere in the game.

  • My first destination of Stay! Stay! DPRK! was Mansudae Art Studio, which is located in the Pyongcheon district of Pyongyang. The artwork of Stay! Stay! DPRK! excels at creating a highly peaceful atmosphere that is certainly absent in the streets of Pyongyang. I’ve got no intentions of actually visiting for myself – North Korean authorities have detained visitors in the past before for various offenses that seem trivial here, but owing to the severity of the penalties (which may involve sentencing to hard labour), the risk simply exceeds the values of visiting.

  • The Mansudae Art Studio is the largest art centres in North Korea and is home to upwards of four thousand artists; founded in 1959, numerous North Korean monuments are crafted here. Because the artwork here is officially sanctioned by the North Korean government, artists live in better conditions than most North Koreans, and works from the studio have been exhibited in other museums around the world.

  • While I have no plans to visit North Korea in the foreseeable future, I have visited South Korea some eleven years ago, and true to the depiction in Stay! Stay! DPRK!kimchi is a very common element of the Korean diet. Consisting of pickled vegetables seasoned with chili, ginger and garlic, kimchi has a very distinct, potent flavour that I enjoyed eating. One of the things about kimchi that I find a riot is that, owing to the gases resulting from fermentation, kimchi jars can explode if improperly stored or handled.

  • The Mansu Hill Grand Monument depicts North Korea’s previous leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il as 22-meter high bronze statues, and as described in Stay! Stay! DPRK!, visitors must capture the statues in full if they photograph them. Kim Il-sung’s statue was completed in 1972, and Kim Jong-il was added in 2011. Unlike the protagonist of Stay! Stay! DPRK!, my first destination in Seoul during my visit was a ginseng chicken soup restaurant: after the long flight across the Pacific, ginseng proved to be a nice boost to my spirits.

  • On the second day in Stay! Stay! DPRK!, I set my sights on Kaesong, a city close to the border with South Korea and so, hosted a special industrial district. However, I’m not sure if there’s anywhere in North Korea that looks quite like this: Jeong is standing in front of the Namdaemun here (which is written in Hanja as 南大門 and phonetically sounds similar), but this landmark is located in the heart of Seoul. One wonders if this is a deliberate or accidental oversight.

  • I note that I’ve not gotten all of the possible locations available for Stay! Stay! DPRK!, so at some point in the near future, I will need to go back and play through the destinations that I did not visit earlier. I’ve said this before for Wolfenstein: The New Order before, and despite having beaten the game once two years ago, I’ve actually yet to go back through and play the second campaign. I probably should do that ahead of the upcoming release of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus.

  • Between “dates”, the protagonists lodges with Jeong and Eunji. Their time together is characterised by particularly bad jokes, flirting and a bit of physical violence. Of the two sisters, Jeong is a carbon copy of Go! Go! Nippon!‘s Makoto: gentle, versed in English and mature, while Eunji is the North Korean counterpart of Akria, being tsundere, ill-tempered but also a good cook. These moments are set in more or less the same rooms, and I note that visual novels do tend to rely a good deal on one’s imagination, with the artwork merely acting to prompt the mind’s eye.

  • The odds of accidentally entering the wrong room, seeing this and coming away in one piece are probably the inverse of the odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field (i.e. I will get away with this once in 3720 attempts). There was a similar pair of moments in Go! Go! Nippon, and in both cases, the older sister is walked in on mid-shower, while the younger sister is walked in on mid-change. Stay! Stay! DPRK! presents itself as the unauthorised parody of Go! Go! Nippon, and it is moments like these that accentuate the influences the latter has in the style and tone of the parody.

  • While I could have gone to every conceivable spot with Jeong, it felt as though it might be more appropriate to diversify the characters at least a little, so I went on the last tour with Eunji, who takes players to the Yanggakdo Stadium in Pyongyang. With 30000 seats, it eclipses the Scotiabank Saddledome by around fifty-five percent in seating capacity, and in Stay! Stay! DPRK!, is where the player watches “football” with Eunji. From a technical perspective, “football” makes sense, since the sport is played predominantly with the feet. “Soccer”, on the other hand, developed out of the shortening of the phrase “Association football”. While us North Americans think of it as soccer, the rest of the world calls it football.

  • The outing with Eunji is actually quite nice, as she takes the player to a fancy revolving restaurant inside the Yanggakdo Hotel. This hotel is the second tallest building in North Korea, after the Ryugyonh Hotel, but unlike the latter, which remains unfinished to this day, the Yanggakdo Hotel is complete, being the only luxury hotel in all of North Korea. There’s a secret floor in the hotel that consists of propaganda-filled hallways and locked doors, although visiting this floor is not the best of ideas, especially considering how tourists have been detailed at this point in time.

  • If memory serves, players also get a lunch date with Akira in Go! Go! Nippon!, rather similar to how players spend a lunch with Eunji in Stay! Stay! DPRK!. By my admission, I’ve actually not beaten Go! Go! Nippon!‘s DLC yet: I have completed the original game and maxed out the Steam badge for it, as well. In the time since the DLC for Go! Go! Nippon! came out, apparently, there’s also a 2016 version as well as the 2015 version, which features animated characters.

  • The final destination in Stay! Stay! DPRK! is Mount Paektu, and if I had to draw the comparison, the mountain is most similar to Japan’s Mount Fuji: both mountains are sacred in their respective cultures, and are formed from volcanic activity. Both mountains are surrounded by dense forests, as well; Kim Il-sung organised resistance forces here against Japanese forces and later, propaganda claims he was born in this area.

  • While Go! Go! Nippon! was ostensibly a dating simulator disguised as a Japan tour simulator, it was devoid of moments such as the ones found in Stay! Stay! DPRK! Folks may find it unusual that Stay! Stay! DPRK! has an onsen chapter to it, although there are indeed hot springs in North Korea. With this being said, I imagine folks would prefer visiting hot springs elsewhere. I further remark that folks may claim Eunji to be “best girl”, although I’m more of a Jeong person, myself.

  • I’ve seen players wonder what the point of including Sumeragi in Stay! Stay! DPRK! was, and the answer to that is simple: she’s allegedly an NOC investigating North Korea. The character was included after an individual made a “Glorious Leader Tier” pledge, which features a cameo appearance for anyone who commits 500 USD to the game. Scuttlebutt has it that this donation was made by one Akeiko “Daigensui” Sumeragi, a rather unpleasant figure reviled in the World of Tanks community, being quite sectarian towards China and advocating revisionist views on history. Fortunately, the Sumeragi seen in Stay! Stay! DPRK! is very pleasing on the eyes, being a source of drunken comedy and perversion.

  • The romance elements of Stay! Stay! DPRK! come out full force late in the game, and the player character compares the two sisters to a beautiful waterfall in the area. Starting with the hot springs trip, decisions players make can actually affect the outcome of the game. Making some decisions can result in what the community refers to colloquially as a “bad end”, and as a parody of the dating sim genre, every ending in Stay! Stay! DPRK! is a bad end to some extent.

  • It is to my understanding that there is a patch for Stay! Stay! DPRK! that lets inquisitive (or insane) players experience the game at a whole new level, one that transcends all known existence. However, I’m not quite ready to transcend this blog into violation of whatever Terms of Service I agreed to when I signed up, and so, for this discussion, I’ve opted to feature only screenshots from the base version of the game on Steam.

  • Of course, Stay! Stay! DPRK! wouldn’t be quite as entertaining without a bit of a plot twist; it turns out Jeong was distracting the player in order to drug him, knocking him out. The player reawakens in a North Korean holding facility and is informed of Jeong and Eunji’s fate, having been branded a traitor by the North Korean government. However, since I did not make any bad decisions earlier, I get to the ending where players manage to escape.

  • With Stay! Stay! DPRK! in the books, I certainly had a few good laughs playing through the game, and I have a feeling that we’ll need these laughs very soon, especially considering recent news of Kim Jong-un’s progress towards developing a miniaturised warhead capable of being outfitted on an ICBM. I’m certainly hoping that negotiations and diplomacy will prevail, although anti-ballistic missile systems will likely be needed to prevent any missiles from reaching North America should things devolve into a shooting war. It is improbably that North Korea will be able to deal extensive damage to North America or triumph in any war to take South Korea, but there will be unacceptable casualties should this happen. For now, however, one hopes that these events will not come to fruition, and that we may continue to poke a bit of fun at the Hermit kingdom even as governments work towards addressing the problem that is North Korea’s weapons programme.

Remarkably enjoyable overall with its narrative, the question that is raised then becomes whether or not Stay! Stay! DPRK! becomes worth the price of admissions. From a strict value perspective, it offers a maximum of around six hours of gameplay assuming several play-throughs, and technically, is a solid visual novel – the artwork is appealing, if somewhat minimal, and while the soundtrack is very limited, it does convey the game’s intent as a parody. The writing is also deliberately chosen to create a sense of hilarity in the game: I’ve only spent two hours in the game, but the entire run was completed with a smile on my face owing to the presence of bad jokes in the game. I’m well familiar with the notion that “North Korea is Best Korea”, for instance, and seeing this thrown into the game, in conjunction with several “accidental” references to the fact that Stay! Stay! DPRK is a visual novel, only serve to bolster the comical value of the game. While immensely unrealistic, the game proved to be much more entertaining than expected; it’s certainly not a bad use of 11 CAD to purchase what is essentially a collection of jokes about North Korea bundled with some visually appealing artwork, although folks interested to try Stay! Stay! DPRK! out might get more value if they should choose to wait for a sale: I bought the game for 20 percent off, which equates to having spent eight dollars for it. Eight dollars is the equivalent of two coffees, and since I’m not particularly fond of coffee, I think that Stay! Stay! DPRK isn’t the worst way to spend eight dollars in the world.

Audiosurf

I’m going to open this reflection up with the verdict: Audiosurf is a brilliant game that offers a refreshing departure from most of the games I normally play, and its setup means it practically has infinite replay value. Released back in 2008 by the company Invisible Handlebar, Audiosurf is a musical puzzle game that procedurally generates stages based on patterns in the music provided to the game. The gameplay is simple: players control a vehicle along a track and collect coloured blocks while their music plays. Game-types vary from collecting blocks and dodging grey blocks, to collecting blocks in specific patterns and configurations to optimise score without overfilling. In concept, the game is quite simple to play, but under the hood, a clever algorithm analyses the input music to generate AHS files, which hold the information about the track. The game loads the environment from the ASH files, with the track’s elevation, surface and layout reflected in the dynamics of the music being played. Soft and mellow songs produce an uphill track that would be very slow, relaxing and rich in cool colours. Conversely, intense intense and loud songs yield a downhill, high speed ride thick with traffic and lit up with hot colours. I first played Audiosurf back in 2010 on the campus computers, prior to a vacation to the Suzhou-Hangzhou region; the freeways here are lined with LED guard-rails that periodically change colour, and after evening dinner, we would head from the restaurant to our hotel along these freeways. Several of Rie Tanaka’s songs began playing on my iPod Touch, and I suddenly felt like I was immersed in Audiosurf.

  • The figure captions today will depart from the typical format, and I will be talking about some of my favourite songs to use in Audiosurf. We begin with Rie Tanaka’s “Soshite Sekai wa Kyou mo Hajimaru” (lit. “And so, the world begins again today”), a song from Chobits that speaks of Chii’s experiences in the world as she experiences things in the world, feeling a little melancholic and wistful. Many of the songs in Chobits are either jazz or pop à la The Carpenters, and confer a particularly relaxing listen. The slower but catchy pacing in Soshite Sekai wa Kyou mo Hajimaru makes it particularly suited for a relaxed environment, such as a coffee shop, or driving through a quiet freeway by nightfall or dawn’s first light.

  • “Katakoto no Koi”, or “Awkward Love”, is one of the happiest, most upbeat and friendliest songs in my library. This song captured my heart when I heard it for the first time, and the simple lyrics belie an innocent nature that reflects on Chii’s personality. This song’s pacing and composition, especially the presence of a trumpet and beautiful performance from Rie Tanaka, reminds me of honest, warm and soft style that The Carpenters were known for.

  • Rie Tanaka is one of my favourite artists of all time: my first exposure to her music was through Token of Water from Gundam SEED, and I promptly fell in love with her musical style and voice. I was in high school at the time, and preferred soundtracks over vocal music, but through Rie Tanaka, I gradually opened up to vocal music of all sorts. Boku wa kimi ga suki (lit “I love you”) is a bouncy song from the album Garnet. I listened to this album for the first time after enjoying fish fried in tomato sauce in Suzhou, before making our way to Wuxi, back in 2010. The freeways in this part of China are well-maintained, and as noted in a previous post, have LED-illuminated guardrails that gently change colour.

  • Midori no Mori (lit. “The Green Forest”) is a song on Rie Tanaka’s 24 Wishes. Finding this album was remarkably difficult; sung by Rie Tanaka and Keitaro Takanami, this bossa nova song gives off a warm, almost tropical feeling that is reminiscent of the southern islands in Japan, where vast green forests run up to the ocean. If memory serves, 24 Wishes has some music from Chobits, although truth be told, I’ve never actually seen the anime. The time is ripe to change that.

  • Besides Rie Tanaka, Lia is also one of my favourite singers: her performance for Angel Beats‘ “My Soul, Your Beats” is phenomenal. The song has two distinct components: Lia’s smooth and continuous vocals carry the melody, while the underlying harmonic elements are rhythmic and staccato, mimicking a heartbeat.

  • As my third undergraduate year was winding down, I picked up Angel Beats! out of curiosity after coming across the opening song again. I was interested in seeing the series, and on days where classes ended before noon, I would return home and watch Angel Beats! while enjoying lunch. In its finale, Ichiban no Takaramono (“My most precious treasure”) plays as Otanashi and Kanade part ways. The song carries a genuine feeling that made me tear up upon hearing it for the first time.

  • Seishun Vibration hails from the K-On!! Character image album for Mio. Sung by Yōko Hisaka, Seishun Vibration is fast-paced, heavy with percussion and bass elements. The lyrics speak volumes about Mio’s true self: despite trying her hardest to be mature and focussed, Mio can occasionally lapse into an undisciplined state when provoked, and she also has a love for cute things. Her songs reflect this, and in Seishun Vibration, it’s clear that Mio wants to experience what love is at the most passionate level, as evidenced by the (somewhat suggestive) lines “I want to be able to do this forever: that position would feel better than anything …/…The moment we become one, I burn hot!!”.

  • Mugi’s Dairy wa Fortessimo (sung by Minako Kotobuki) might be as upbeat as Mio’s Seishun Vibration, but whereas Mio’s song is more passionate, the lyrics in Dairy wa Fortessimo is about her happiness at being able to enjoy tea and perform with her friends. Three summers ago, I was out on a day trip to the mountains with the research lab: together with Seishun Vibration, Dairy wa Fortessimo feels like the perfect music for drives along the open road under the mountains.

  • Ashita e no Michi (“The Road to Tomorrow”) is from the  Tari Tari character albums and is probably my favourite out of all the songs: the composition brings to mind Leslie Cheung and Jackie Cheung‘s Canto-pop compositions, which I listened to frequently when I was much younger. They somehow remind me of the university, and in particular, Ashita e no Michi turned out to be an exceptional, if obscure, song. I had little idea of what the lyrics were, but a bit of assistance from another blogger allowed me to fully translate the song.

  • Choucho’s Dream Riser is the opening to Girls und Panzer, the anime that turned out to be a surprise hit. Whereas opinions on it were initially divided (most people were anticipating something similar to Strike Witches in that there’d be limited story and excessive anatomy lessons), the anime soon proved itself to be a solid story on personal discovery, the significance of friendship and what good sportsmanship is.

  • As of late, I add ClariS’ music to my list of songs that I enjoy in Audiosurf. The opening music they have performed for the Madoka Magica anime and movies is amazing; the change in tempo and intensity also lends itself to some interesting moments in Audiosurf: the song has a lullaby-like feeling in its opening moments, with gentle piano and synth elements. Strings and percussion soon join the accompaniment, and what was prima facie a ballad quickly transforms the song into an upbeat pop song with an uplifting melody.

  • 7 Girls War is the opening song to Wake Up, Girls!, that, as a song composed as a J-Idol song, somehow manages to be more intense than the fastest of my DragonForce songs. In Audiosurf‘s simplest game setting, mono, there are coloured and grey blocks on the track. The aim is simply to collect the coloured blocks and dodge the grey ones. Gentle, slower music yields blocks that are mostly blue and purple, while high intensity songs will yield orange and red blocks. None of my DragonForce songs have actually sustained the same level of intensity as the songs from Wake Up, Girls!, which I found to be quite surprising.

  • We finally step out of the realm of anime music, to other titles. I play a mixture of instrumental and vocal music in Audiosurf, and some songs are better suited than others for unlocking achievements. Longer instrumental songs are quite well suited for this task, as they tend to have quieter moments. One such song is Halo 4‘s 117, which, together with To Galaxy, are my favourite pieces on the soundtrack. Stepping away from Martin O’Donnell’s style in older soundtracks, Neil Davidge presents a new musical style to the Halo universe that is a refreshing new take.

  • At the time of writing, I’ve unlocked sixteen of nineteen available achievements in Audiosurf, and here, I am enjoying a quieter moment in the DragonForce song “Heroes of Our Time”. The new DragonForce albums are amazing: “Seasons” and “Fallen World” are among my favourite new tracks, joining the likes of “Soldiers of This Wasteland” and “Valley of the Damned” as my top DragonForce songs.

  • Now that I think about it, I’ve never actually tried Nightwish or Rammstein in Audiosurf before. There are several achievements that are significantly easier to unlock using instrumental songs, though: here, I am attempting to unlock the “Snowstorm” achievement (collect a chain reaction of at least seven white blocks), and the trick is to, using the Double Vision game mode to accumulate a “base” of blocks, then collecting the required number of white blocks and waiting for the correct moment to set them off.

I’ve now got my own copy of Audiosurf from the Steam 2013 Summer Sale (for a cool 1.99), and, upon loading the very same songs I listened to in the Suzhou-Hangzhou region, I am brought back three years to that summer. This time, though, I’ve got a 1080p display, and it is quite magical to play through Audiosurf while listening to my favourite songs. Over the past year, I’ve unlocked a majority of the achievements, save the ones that involve displacing friends’ scores, and the game continues to be a thrill to play. There are numerous game types to keep things varied, and together with a massive music library, the possibility and incentive for replay is nearly infinite; despite being a very simple game, by being able to turn my favourite songs into levels, Audiosurf personalises the experience. Different players will experience the game differently, and for me, I see a game that provides an exhilarating light show synchronised to my music. I see a game that allows for endless replay: as long as I’ve got music, there will always be a reason to play this game.

BioShock Infinite

The mind of the subject will desperately struggle to create memories where none exist.

One of my friends have long been asking me to play BioShock Infinite, the third installment in the Bioshock franchise, since the summer. However, during the summer, I already had a sizeable collection of games that I wished to get through, so I replied to her that I would beat the games I had first, then get BioShock Infinite on the next sale. When the game went on sale for ten dollars during the Steam Winter sale, I decided to give the game a shot; I found out on Boxing Day that the Salvaged Crate from Team Fortress 2 I had put on the market for 20 dollars was finally purchased, and suddenly, my Steam Wallet was 20 dollars richer. I bought Trials Evolution (which I will review soon, along with AudioSurf), and when the sale for BioShock Infinite was announced, I decided that it was now or never. After the winter break ended, and winter term began, I set aside Battlefield 3 and made my way through BioShock Infinite, beating the game over ten hours spread between January 6 and February 20.

  • It’s been over two months since I beat BioShock Infinite, which I acquired on a Steam sale during the winter holidays. Contrasting the previous BioShock games, Infinite is set in a floating city rather than an underwater city, and recommends a GPU equivalent to the GTX 560 or ATI Radeon 6950 for an optimal experience.

  • With everything maxed out, at 1080p, I’m averaging around 70 FPS in BioShock Infinite. The game looks absolutely beautiful in the opening parts, if somewhat haunting owing to all of the religious imagery that exist in the atmosphere. I’m immensely grateful to have a PC that can run almost anything under the sun (except Battlefield 4 and Crysis 3) at full settings: one of my friends on Steam purchased the entire BioShock series when it was on sale, but a PC rocking the AMD Athlon 64 and the GeForce 6150SE nForce 430 integrated GPU is going to have a tough time running even Half Life 2.

  • In fact, the GeForce 6150 SE is so outdated that higher end tablets out there might just perform better: said friend played through BioShock Infinite on the University’s gaming computers. These machines have impressive specs, but despite their price tag, I was able to build a significantly more powerful computer for less a year ago. The end result is a system that allows me to experience most games without needing to queue for a computer on campus.

  • The colour palette in BioShock Infinite led me to compare it with Suisei no Gargantia, an anime I picked up back during last summer. It turns out that Columbia is a floating city, compared to the underwater cities in earlier installments in the BioShock series, and as such, the blue skies are almost the only thing that Suisei no Gargantia really shares with BioShock Infinite.

  • Items, such as food, salts, beverages and money can be found almost anywhere in the game, whether it be in rubbish containers, sitting on tables or lying around in the open. Consuming and taking these items will replenish health and salts, although most of Columbia’s citizens won’t react to Booker randomly taking items. Of course, there are amusing implications associated with taking a sandwich and orange juice from a trash can that actually replenishes health, rather than causing it to drop as a result of pathogens.

  • The combat against Columbia breaks out after I refuse to stone an interracial couple and instead, make to punish the event host. After that, I get to melee enemies, a combat option that is gruesome, causing heads to be torn in two. Fortunately, partially shredding some sap’s skull results in a bloody stump rather than anything that is anatomically correct. That would be disturbing to the extent where I might have not finished the game.

  • Perhaps it’s me, but I’ve noticed that the graphics in BioShock InfiniteCrysis and Crysis 2 are the best in the beginning of the game, but things slowly taper off as the game progresses. From a technical perspective, the graphics haven’t actually changed, but the atmospherics have, and I think that warm, ordinary conditions allow for more familiar lighting compared to the darker lighting later on in the game.

  • The shooting in BioShock Infinite handles and feels a little like Halo 4: when I first picked up the game, the default controls kept throwing me off, and so, I eventually spent a small bit of time configuring the game so it played a little more like Halo, with the controls for looking down the sights mapped to what was originally grenade tossing. After these changes were made, BioShock Infinite finally felt more intuitive.

  • There are infusions scattered throughout the game, and even though I’ve beaten it, I have yet to actually find all of the infusions or max out one of the three attributes (salts, health and shields). When picking which attribute to boost, players should opt to upgrade their salts capacity if they enjoy using the vigour, and those who are playing BioShock Infinite like an ordinary shooter should improve their shield capacity. There’s no real advantage to increasing health, since shields pretty much fulfill the role of regenerating health anyways.

  • I ended up spending more of my money on weapon upgrades rather than improvements to the vigours’ performance. However, the vigours do add a dimension to the gameplay, allowing me to take out groups of enemies quickly, stun automaton or set traps for them. I use them about as frequently as I do grenades in other games, preferring some over the others. The crows one, I hardly ever use.

  • The carbine is my preferred weapon early on in the game, allowing me to drop distant enemies with a single well-placed headshot. I suddenly realise that I don’t have very many screenshots with Elizabeth, whose ability to create tears come in very useful, providing extra supplies, firepower and cover. Her story forms the core of BioShock Infinite, and it’s quite nice that I can go about my usual FPS business without worrying about her being lost to enemy action, although she’s programmed with a path-finding algorithm that puts her in my face every now and then.

  • The weapons can be improved by purchasing upgrades such that they have increased damage, firing rates and ammunition capacity, although these are statistical bonuses and won’t affect how the weapons look. The sniper rifle is only useful in a handful of contexts, and is limited by its small carrying capacity and magazine size. However, it does allow players to decimate distant targets, although the distances in BioShock Infinite mean that the carbine is more than sufficient for most contexts.

  • After reaching this point in the game, things take on a surprising turn, as Elizabeth opens up tears to alternate realities, inadvertently entering universes where things turned out differently (usually for the worse). This brings to mind the effects of time travelling in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, where every successive use of time traveling made a bad situation worse. The moral behind most stories with time travel seems to be that merely because people have judgement and knowledge about events, tampering with them may introduce consequences that wind up being even more undesirable than their original state.

  • The Handyman is a heavily armoued opponent that Booker will encounter later on, representing the classic juggernaut. However, these Handyman have a frightening origin, being crudely-wrought cyborgs who are in constant pain and will lash out at anyone out of suffering rather than malice or duty. Headshots and shots placed at their hearts are the fastest way to down them, although it would be prudent to take down the small fry they’re with to reduce the number of enemies complicating the situation.

  • Besides American Exceptionalism, BioShock Infinite also supplies imagery pertaining to economic disparity and the Occupy movement. However, despite all of these elements, Booker is powerless to really change the course of the story, subtly hinting (at least to me) that there are many things outside our control, although in spite of this, the player still has a task to see through to completion, and it is sufficient to focus on that.

It turns out that BioShock Infinite‘s strongest aspect is the atmospherics; the story is a little hectic, with Elizabeth’s powers and origins being the catalyst that leads the protagonist, Booker, to discover a conspiracy behind Columbia’s founding. Originally, Columbia represented American exceptionalism, but events gradually revealed the founder, Zachary Comstock’s, intentions. As a theocratic police state, elements of religious fanaticism and racism are present throughout the game: shortly after arriving at Columbia, Booker is greeted with a seemingly utopian world of blue skies and content citizens, but the first sign that Columbia is darker than it appears after Booker is asked to stone an interracial couple. I opted to throw the rock at the exhibition host, and soon found myself in a firefight with Columbia’s law enforcement. As I progressed further into the game, I became very uncomfortable with all of the religious imagery, which represented the consequence of fanaticism and devotion transcending reason. To me, the fact that such things can happen is frightening: this was a society that was blinded by their devotion to the cult of personality surrounding Comstock, and the fact that the game could evoke such feelings of discomfort is a testament to just how much effort went into crafting a world that could immerse the player sufficiently as to evoke these feelings. Despite the fact that these elements were secondary to the game itself, they add such a substantial amount of immersion to BioShock Infinite that it’s quite difficult to imagine the game without it.

  • As the game wears on, the atmospherics become gloomier, and this is reflected in the lighting. Whereas the earlier parts of the game were permeated by brilliant blue skies and fair weather, as Booker and Elizabeth work their way towards the truth, things really start turning ugly. By this point in the game, I have a maxed out carbine: I had around a thousand silver eagles left when I beat the game, and spent most of my money on weapon upgrades.

  • Silver Eagles can be found almost everywhere in the game, and I found myself digging through nooks and crannies, as well as making use of Elizabeth’s lock picking to get at different areas. Sometimes, her lock picks are necessary, but at other times, the rooms or safes turn out to contain cool stuff, like clothing upgrades that confer bonuses. I typically equipped clothing that improved shield recharge and returned health for performing melee fatalities.

  • Even though I’ve been playing FPS for nearly ten years now (therefore, I should know about weapon utility and balance), some days, the cool weapons paradigm (“the cooler a gun looks, the more powerful it is”) still takes over, and at points in BiosShock Infinite, I abandoned my effective weapons to try the more exotic weapons, such as the volley guns or heater. Curiously enough, the weapons with the most utility are the carbine, machine gun and shotgun. The RPG and sniper rifle can fulfil unique rolls at some points, but other than that, it is possible to get by for most of the game with nothing more than the carbine and a secondary weapon of some sort, which confers combat effectiveness at all ranges.

  • Take a gander at that lighting. By this point, the Vox Populi have instigated a revolution against the Founders, throwing Columbia into chaos and making their way towards the main city. I recall that two years ago, when I was writing my MCAT practise exams, there were a lot of verbal reasoning sections involving the civil rights movement, something that I only had moderate familiarity with. I touched up and did more readings on that, becoming increasingly disappointed with the Confederate.

  • At one point, I am forced to engage the Lady Comstock’s ghost in battle. Despite my über-micro, this was a tough battle. The sheer number of targets (both the ghost and the undead minions) means that I was running out of ammunition and salts very quickly, even with the stockpiles lying around the graveyard and those obtained from Elizabeth. However, firepower and brute force, coupled with my über-micro, soon wins out, showing that most ghosts in J-horror movies wouldn’t stand a chance against the overwhelming firepower conferred by small arms.

  • Writing about games I’ve beaten months ago can be difficult, given that much has happened since when I started: I can’t quite remember what happened here, but I know I had a thought when I came across this room. Back in January, I was finalising my applications into graduate studies and for scholarships. Since then, results have come back, a few unknowns about my future have become known, and now, I’ve finished all my exams and handed in all my assignments for this year, meaning I can finally enter the summer. After taking the remainder of this week off to relax and sort out a few things, it’s time to update my lab’s computer to Mac OS X Mavericks before kicking off the summer’s work.

  • In most cases, on my first play-through of a game, I tend to skate by hidden places, secrets and bonuses, but sometimes, I get lost in a map trying to find an exit and find myself in unusual places. Here, I stumble across a secret room of some sort and found a range of things: collecting things is one of the more amusing parts of BioShock Infinite, although I have yet to find every item in the game.

  •  Given that it’s been some two months since I beat this game, and so, as I write this post, I can’t quite remember why the weather shifts to snowfall from the gloomy smoke that resulted from the Vox Populi’s revolution, but now is the time for a firefight of epic proportions. While BioShock Infinite excels at storytelling and atmospherics, the gunplay is familiar, and the AI from the enemies is a little disappointing. On the other hand, Elizabeth has incredible AI and always seems to have what I need or be on hand to help, without accidentally putting herself between my iron sights and the enemies at the other end of the barrel.

  • The fight on Comstock’s airship is quite fun: in this section of the game, the skyhook becomes immensely useful as Booker jumps between airships and different levels of the main airship. The aerial combat is incredibly entertaining, and I spent a better part of this mission getting sky rail kills to unlock achievements. Of all the achievements I have in BioShock Infinite, I think I have roughly two-fifths unlocked, and to date, haven’t played a perfect game for any of the Steam titles I own (i.e. unlock all achievements in a game).

  • Despite its high rate of fire and magazine capacity, the crank gun is actually a cumbersome weapon that isn’t particularly practical. It is often dropped by the mechanised Patriots. Shooting them in the back is supposed to finish them quite quickly, but as they keep moving around and firing, the suggestion is to use the Shock Jockey vigour to stun it, buying enough time to flank it and blow it away.

  • Booker’s murder of Comstock was one of the more sickening moments in the game: while Comstock is a vile character who gave me very little reason to sympathize with, I found his death to be particularly disturbing, if only for the fact that he was killed in cold blood, drowned under haunting religious imagery. I was hoping that the final fight was with Comstock, ending in an impressive battle where I would defeat Comstock while he had a weapon in hand.

  • The worst part of it is that the player isn’t given the choice of whether or not Comstock should be spared: I probably would have chosen to spare him even after his misdeeds.

  • The final battle is against waves of the Vox Populi, while trying to destroy the Siphon that is restricting Elizabeth’s access to her powers. During this battle, the songbird becomes an ally and can be directed to sink airships. When the dust settles, the shooter part of the game ends, and the remaining portions of the game wind up being a very cinematic sequence that ends the story.

  • Elizabeth opens a tear to Rapture, an underwater city that was the setting for BioShock and BioShock 2. Apparently, this is set in a different dimension, and indeed, the ending of BioShock Infinite might be a little difficult to follow. Fortunately, conversation with the friend who recommended the game to me seems to have cleared things up a little.

  • Now that I’ve beaten BioShock Infinite and written about it, I think it’s a game that deserves at least a few play-throughs so all of the subtleties in the environment can be picked up. As much as I’d love to do this, though, there are other things that I’d like to do with my time this summer, so a subsequent play through will probably materialise somewhere in the future.

As far as the story and gameplay go, the story was reasonably entertaining, although I found it a little difficult to follow. In a sense, it’s like the ending to the Madoka Magica Rebellion Movie, leaving the audience with more questions than answers. Elizabeth’s presence adds much to the story, bringing to mind Alex Vance from the Half Life 2 games and providing the player with combat advantages, as well as a source of interaction to humanise Booker and paint him as someone who is genuinely trying to atone for his past actions. In spite of this, because this is a first person shooter, Booker is nonetheless required to use violence to push further into the story. These elements mean that whenever I make to melee, the opponents’ skulls can shredded by a fatality, leaving a bleeding stump that was once someone’s head, or snapping their neck with the same kind of brutality we saw from Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. Similarly, in the final confrontation with Comstock, the player has no choice but to watch Booker drown the former. Such scenes leave a painful impression of helplessness, bringing to mind the extreme circumstances that warrant such actions. These things contribute to the experience in BioShock Infinite, which, despite playing like a run-of-the-mill shooter, has so much going for it in terms of atmospherics, moods and story that it definitely must be played to be experienced. BioShock Infinite demonstrates that even though gameplay has reached a plateau in first person shooters, it makes all the difference in the world to take the time and build a believable, yet frightening setting that changes the meaning of the protagonist’s fight, marking a much-welcomed and refreshing (if somewhat macabre) departure from hunting down missing nuclear warheads and saving the world from rogue factions.

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon- First Impressions

“When one has shot down one’s first, second or third opponent, then one begins to find out how the trick is done.” — Baron Manfred von Richtofen.

I have long been interested in playing an Ace Combat game ever since Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War was out back in 2004 for PlayStation 2. The prospect of being able to fly a plane in diverse environments to save the world has always held an appeal to me, although I never did have the chance to try it out on a PC environment. This changed when Ace Combat: Assault Horizon was released for PC last January. Despite being set in the real world rather than Strangereal, the game caught my eye with its environments, and so, I decided that next there was a sale on Steam, I would purchase Assault Horizon. Unfortunately, that never materialised: during the Fall 2013 sale, the game was 67 percent off and was sold at a 9.99 USD (it’s normally 29.99 USD). I was waiting until the final day of the sale, so that if it didn’t go on further discount, I’d buy it then. Alas, it was found the product keys supplied with the game had been faulty, and so, the game was pulled from the Steam store before I could buy it. However, just a few days ago, Valve has since restored Assault Horizon to the Steam Store, and more pleasantly, the game went on sale for 7.50, making it a no-brainer to pick up. This purchase marks the second year in  a row that an amazing deal happened at this time of year: while there’s no spaghetti and Scrubs this time around, I will probably recall this game as being purchased right before the weather warms up again, on a Friday night with fried pork ribs.

  • Miami’s I-95 Expressway is visible as I fly north at the mission’s opening. Assault Horizon returns to the real world, and making use of the technologies that made Google Maps and iOS Maps’ 3D modes possible, the locations have been very accurately replicated.

  • I’ve looked around, and there’s no way to do free flight over the various maps in the campaign. Players can replay campaign missions, but that’s about it. Before I continue, I note that I fully understand that Assault Horizon is not a flight simulator, but it’s an arcade flight game. The arcade elements make the game a lot more fun at the expense of realism, but with due respect, if I wanted realism, I would have probably opted to go with another game.

  • In Unsung War, the missions that caught my eye most were those set over snowy, mountainous terrain or cities, such as “Journey Home”, which was set over Osea’s November City. The mission was to do a ceremonial fly-over for a war rally held at the stadium, and despite only having seen some footage of that mission, the atmospherics were very immersive.

  • The same could be said about the final two missions to infiltrate a utility tunnel and destroy the SOLG’s controls, then the mission to take out the SOLG itself on New Year’s Eve. There’s a sort of mystique about missions set during late December, and in a conversation with my friend, he noted that these missions strike a resonant chord because late December is the holiday season, when most are celebrating. In Ace Combat, on the other hand, wars force pilots to continue sorties even though it’s the holidays.

  • Dogfight mode is necessary to take out some of the enemy aircraft. The game notes that enemies tagged as a leader must be engaged and destroyed using dogfight mode: efforts to try and shoot them down are fruitless, since missiles will end up missing entirely or being disrupted by countermeasures, and the cannon will conveniently miss them. With that said (and openly defying the detractors), dogfight mode is quite fun: for a thrilling few seconds, the game takes control of my aircraft and I get to concentrate on shooting.

  • Back in one of my Five Centimeters per Second posts, I mentioned that grey skies evoked Ace Combat feelings in me. Thanks to a lucky sale, I now get to experience that for myself: winter’s finally over now, though, and while that means beautiful blue skies and warmer weather, it also means that the winter feelings associated with Ace Combat will probably go on hold. Naturally, I’ll play through the winter missions again come next December to experience said winter feelings.

  • Compared to the previous Ace Combat titles, Assault Horizon has a much more minimalist HUD, allowing players to focus on dogfights and missions. I rather like this: the older HUDs feel a little more cluttered (understandably, to display more information). Ace Combat Infinity is the latest title in the franchise, being free-to-play and is set in the real world, albeit with an alternate history. It brings back the older elements, such as HUDs and storylines involving superweapons.

  • I’ve heard countless reviews say that Assault Horizon handles and feels like Call of Duty, but strictly speaking, this feeling only arises because the first few missions are set in the desert, which is where Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare occurred. When I played through Modern Warfare, the missions I enjoyed the most were set in Russia and Pripyat, while my least favourite missions were in the Middle East.

  • The last time I played as a side-door gunner, it was Battlefield: Bad Company 2‘s “Crack the Sky“, where I spent the mission’s opening blowing away RPGs (actually CG M2 recoilless rifles) at the landing zone before climbing a snowy hill to reach the satellite control center. This time, I’m participating in a strike mission of some sort. From a personal perspective, I think that the comparisons to Call of Duty are a little excessive: I think most reviewers mean that both Assault Horizon and Call of Duty tends to focus on cinematics more than story or characters, producing a generic story.

  • However, I find that, despite having a generic story, Assault Horizon does provide the player with a fair chance to engage in some old-time arcade dogfights in aircraft, and at the end of the day over beautiful locales, and at the end of the day, that’s pretty much what I came for. I may go into the multiplayer later, but I also have to start Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The course of action now is that Deus Ex: Human Revolution will take priority once I beat most (if not all) of Assault Horizon. On the blogging side of things, my next posts will be about the Pilot’s Love Song and Gundam Build Fighters. I anticipate having both written within the next two weeks.

I’ve since beaten the first two missions: the first involves a tutorial set in Colonel Bishop’s dreams over Miami, Florida, as he takes on Russian jets and is killed by a plane with a shark mouth painted on its fuselage. The mission is exciting: I particularly love the cloud effects and the details present in Miami. When I checked out Miami in Google Maps, the city layout, buildings and landmarks were easily recognisable. The air combat is very cinematic, and the Dogfight Mode (DFM) adds a new level of interaction. Although it may get old if one needs to use DFM in every engagement, it is immensely satisfying to watch a jet disintegrate after taking enough cannon fire or a pair of well-placed missiles. Moreover, some of the dogfights are glorious, taking the plane under narrow openings and a hair over rooftops. However, Assault Horizon does seem to be a little choppy in places, with the instructions for the controls interrupting the flow of the game. Right as I line up a shot with the enemy fighter, the game halts and tells me that I should use my cannon to shoot down planes with ECM pods since they jam missiles: when I hit enter to return to the game, the enemy plane drops out of my sight. As well, the controls aren’t particularly sensitive for the mouse, forcing me to keep to the keyboard for my controls. Fortunately, the controls in the optimal mode handle similarly to the controls for Halo 2‘s Banshee and the VTOL in Crysis. The original (i.e. advanced) controls, on the other hand, are akin to the jet controls from Battlefield 3, although thankfully, I seem to have gotten the hang of them (otherwise, I wouldn’t have gotten far into the game). I’ve seen what the game looks like, and while the first quarter of the game is all desert, I know that there will be a chance to fly in Moscow, over the boreal forests of Russia, Dubai and Washington D.C. Now that I’ve got reasonable experience with the controls, it’s time to go and enjoy flying over some beautiful landscapes.

Crysis 2- Final Impressions

After two months of purchasing Crysis 2, I’ve finally beaten it. The second half sees Alcatraz defending Grand Central Station from the swarms of Ceph forces and Times Square from the same to buy civilians enough time to evacuate. Upon finishing this task, Alcatraz is sent to infiltrate the complex on Roosevelt Island, where Hargreave is located, and takes down Commander Lockhart in the process. Reaching the complex means finding Hargreave in stasis after an injury sustained at Tunguska: the subsequent conversation ends with Alcatraz receiving the final upgrades to the Nanosuit. The last goal in Crysis 2 is to destroy the Ceph spire in Central Park before the US Department of Defense launches a tactical nuclear strike on Manhattan. Once Alcatraz makes it, the game ends on the note that the Nanosuit has assimilated Prophet’s memories into Alcatraz, bringing Prophet back to life and setting in motion the events of Crysis 3, which would release in March 2013 and is so GPU demanding that my current loadout can only run the game on high settings, rather than ultra settings.

  • The Grendel fulfills the role of Halo 2, Halo 3 and Halo 4‘s Battle Rifle. A high-caliber battle rifle, the Grendel has semiautomatic and three-round bursts, making it useful as a marksman rifle at medium to long ranges. Lacking automatic fire, it’s less useful at closer ranges, meaning I typically will pair a shotgun with it.

  • There’s a Swarmer missile launcher in Grand Central Station somewhere; it is particularly useful for shutting down the Pinger that storms in later. Crysis 2 performs very nicely on my system, running at a cool 80 FPS, but the frame rate does drop sometimes when I’m inside a building.

  • I don’t think I have any images or mention of it, but the X-43 MIKE is a high-power experimental directed-energy weapon based around weaponized microwaves, causing the water and fat molecules in organic systems to heat rapidly to quickly take down a target. Against the Ceph, even a short exposure causes them to explode violently, making the weapon useful against Ceph Devastators. The MIKE only makes an appearance five times in the campaign and extra ammunition cannot be found for the weapon.

  • There are two separate phases where one will need to hold out against the Ceph. At Times Square, there is a HMG that will shred the Ceph: the Ceph are tougher to kill compared to CELL operatives, although they can be downed very quickly with stealth kills. These are surprisingly entertaining to carry out, even though there are only a few animations for the stealth kills.

  • A careful eye reveals that the cityscape on either side of Roosevelt Island is the same, but that doesn’t matter, since the overall effect is very pleasing. By this point in the game, I had enough Nano catalyst to unlock all of the stealth upgrades and had an incredible time sneaking around the complex, dispatching CELL soldiers with stealth kills or silenced headshots from a silenced SCARAB (which I had discarded earlier for the SCAR).

  • Commander Lockhart is protected by a force field of some sort, and wields one of the few Gauss rifles in the game. A combination of stealth and use of cover allows for the distance to be closed, and any opposition to be silenced. From there, defeating Lockhart proves to be straightforward enough: it’s not a true boss battle, but a cutscene, since Lockhart is an ordinary man with a Gauss rifle and probably would result in a disappointing fight.

  • The interior of Hargreaves’ complex is very ornate and in fact, brings to mind Drake’s castle from 007 Nightfire (the console version). Previous iterations of the Nanosuit can be seen in the glass cases, and soon after Alcatraz meets Hargreaves’ true form, Ceph break in. It is advisable to have a good close-quarters weapon at this stage to make the fight easier.

  • After Hargreaves announces his intentions, he orders the CELL to assist Alcatraz along with the self-destruction of his facility. The ensuing explosion wrecks the Queensboro Bridge while Alactraz is running across it, providing a harrowing few moments. As powerful as the Nanosuit is, Alacatraz is taken off the bridge by a falling vehicle, but is found by Gould and Strickland.

  • En route to the floating remains of Central Park, the player is given a rail-shooting assignment. Even though Ceph soldiers and Devastators stand between Alcatraz and the destination, the tank’s main weapon is very effective, while the missile launchers make things a little too easy. For one reason or another, I love rail shooters, as they allow me to focus entirely on shooting while someone else focuses on driving.

  • The final “bosses” in Crysis 2 is an entire army of Ceph (they defeated by a bit of patience and stealth), and four Ceph Guardians. The Guardians can cloak and have the highest durability of any Ceph in game: when I first encountered them, all I had was the K-Volt. I managed to defeat all of them by emptying entire magazines into them at near-point blank range and drawing each one out individually for a stealth kill. Once they are beaten, crawling into the Ceph spire will effectively end the game; beyond this point, the Nanosuit takes care of everything else, and thus ends a thrilling ten-hour journey through New York.

As an eight-dollar deal on Steam, Crysis 2 was something that I was considering when it went on discount back in October. Upon beating the campaign, I was very satisfied with the solid, tactile feeling from the gameplay. The Nanosuit, despite feeling less powerful compared to its Crysis iteration, allowed me to play through sections of the campaign as I preferred. Collecting nano catalyst from downed Ceph and upgrading my suit to fit my preferences was a very nice touch, giving me superior armour. By the time I reached Roosevelt Island, I had defeated enough Ceph to fully upgrade both my armour and stealth ratings. I took a liking to using silenced weapons to place headshots on distant soldiers without my cloak dropping: this is something I couldn’t do back in Crysis. I also cannot stress enough how enjoyable it was to have the ability to grab onto ledges and perform power-slides. These elements add variety to the gameplay, and though Crysis 2 may be less open than its predecessor, it captures the feeling of an urban jungle very nicely. The story aspect is, while a little inconsistent or inconceivable in some places, nonetheless entertaining enough to stand on its own. As a shooter, the gunplay is solid and the weapons feel powerful, again, being customisable to one’s preference. Overall, limitations in its graphics and story aren’t enough to take away from what is a fitting entry in the Crysis series. Of course, the fact that I netted this for eight dollars means that a part of my enjoyment did indeed come from that Steam Sale.