God of War Origins Collection

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The God of War: Origins Collection was released back in 2011.  It includes the Playstation Portable entries Chains of Olympus and Ghost of Sparta on a blu-ray disc remastered in HD. This is not to be confused with the God of War Collection which includes remastered versions of the first two GoW games on one blu-ray disc. I played the two PSP games when they first came out. As I no longer have a PSP and I spend more time playing my home consoles than my portable ones, I figured picking up a used copy of Origins for super cheap at GameStop wasn’t a bad idea. I’ve been itching to play them again and after letting Steve-O borrow my copies of the first three console games, it’s been fun showing him the rest of the God of War saga.

There are getting to be one too many installations in this series for my comfort level. It isn’t on as grandiose a scale as, say, Kingdom Hearts, but I’m starting to hate it when companies drag this crap on. Thankfully, the plot stays simplistic and doesn’t get all KH convoluted and crap. The standard formula remains the same: a testosterone-laden bloodbath inspired by Greek mythology featuring a former Spartan general who hates the gods because he got tricked (or something) into killing his wife and daughter. Yadda yadda, you guys know the drill.

The basic premise for Chains of Olympus is Kratos getting sick of doing the gods’ dirty work. But, yeah, he’s still stuck running bloody errands for them. Throw in the typical teasers about the family he killed with his own hands, kill famous mythological Greek figures,  and there you have it! The lucky member of the Greek Pantheon who incurs Kratos’ wrath this time around is Persephone. I think its funny that Hades fails to mention the fact that Kratos offed his wife during their confrontation in God of War 3 (IIRC), but the writers also don’t bother discussing the potential ramifications of such an act. I mean, Demeter put the world in six months of winter while her daughter was in the underworld with Hades. Imagine what would happen if she found out her daughter was dead!

Ghost of Sparta is a bit more interesting, because it takes Kratos’ brooding over his dead wife and daughter and applies his rage to something else! A brother! Still more family angst, but it does break away from the mold just a tad. It was nice to kill the rest of his family, as I always hate leaving things undone. The boss fights are pretty cool too. I really enjoyed the spell Kratos steals from Erinys. And the tag team final boss fight was an entertaining variation from the usual formula.

Unsurprisingly, the graphics in Ghost of Sparta are better than Chains of Olympus, as it was released afterwards. I’m not overly concerned with graphic quality anyway, but I found it bothersome that they didn’t polish the experience up. the God of War  home console games run almost seamless on their respective systems. But these ports still have the screen freezes I remember seeing when the UMD was loading on my PSP. Except there is no UMD anymore. Sometimes I thought the game was freezing up. They should’ve just been honest and included a loading icon or something so I wouldn’t be under the impression my PS3 was crapping the bed or my disc was scratched. Other bonuses include added content I didn’t really check out, 3D compatibility, and trophy integration!

All in all, the games themselves and the port content are par for the course. If you didn’t have the chance to check out these installments on the PSP or if you collect everything that is God of War like me, definitely pick this up. This collection is cheap and the games are fun, visceral action games you can pick up and beat in a couple of sittings.

Dead Island: Riptide

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I made the mistake of waiting over a week to sit down to write this review after Steve-O and I completed our initial run-through of this game, so my thoughts aren’t as fresh as when the credits ran. For better or for worse, my review of this follow-up to the sleeper hit zombie-slaying 2011 release is what I anticipated it would be before I even played the game. I expect this to mean one of two things: either the video game industry has become way too predictable or I play too many video games.

For those of you who haven’t been following my blog for very long, I’ll give you a little run-down on our history with Dead Island here at Hardly Hobbies. Steve-O and I both happen to be fans of RPGs and gratuitous zombie violence. We stumbled upon Dead Island far too late and became hooked. I gave it a sterling review and both Steve-O and I have placed it on our Favorite Games of all Time lists. Dead Island‘s faults add to its charm. The entire experience is akin to a badly written B horror movie… In all of its unpolished, glitchy, cheesy glory. It usually doesn’t take itself too seriously. And that is what we love about it.

I watched some gameplay footage and interviews with developers before Dead Island’s successor released. My initial assumption was this: the next game will be more of the same, and they won’t bother to fix any of the obvious issues with the first one. I am pleased to say this entry is more of the same. I am not so pleased to report they didn’t take the time to fix many of the glaring issues with the first. Open-world games always seem riddled with bugs, and Dead Island is no exception. Unlike, say, Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, I haven’t stumbled upon any game breaking bugs (my Bethesda boycott still stands, TYVM). But there is a crap-ton of glitchy quest trackers, zombies miraculously running through walls, and weapons disappearing into the void when you throw them. With that being said, dead zombie bodies still twitching while stuck halfway through a fence is part of that unpolished charm I love so much about it.

What kills me is when they don’t bother fixing dumb things that don’t take any creativity to fix because the riddles were solved back in the 90’s. For example: inventory management in this game is still horrific. Why can’t I tell the seller how many of a particular item I want to buy instead of clicking the confirmation button 99 times? Why can’t I just hold the down direction to scroll through my inventory? Why can’t I organize my hundreds-of-random-items-long inventory? Why does the game keep randomly equipping a different weapon on my character? Like I said, elementary stuff.

Riptide captures the soul of the Dead Island experience, even with the additions I’ll be discussing momentarily. At the expense of mini-spoilers (haha!) the plot is mostly predictable. The main characters from the first game escape Banoi, only to stumble upon yet another zombie-infested island. This time around, there is another immune character to add to the roster: John Morgan. I know him as the Aussie veteran with a bad attitude and a Big Boot! Steve-O and I debated for a while as to whether we should import our level 40-something Xian from the previous save file or start over as John. When we found out you don’t carry over any inventory and would therefore be fighting level 40-something zombies with level 10 knives, we decided against Xian. Plus we’d heard John can really kick zombie butt. And oh, does he kick zombie butt. John kicks zombie butt across rooms, streets, and flooded alleyways. Literally. His electrifying uppercut is nothing to shake a stick at, either. Not only can he pound zombies to kingdom come with his knuckles, he also gets ridiculous health regeneration skills as well. Yeah, he is my new favorite zombie killing machine.

Aside from adding a new playable character, they also added new zombies to kill. Walkers and Infected are still the most populous of them all. There’s plenty of Floaters and Thugs. I don’t know why, but I had a harder time differentiating Thugs from regular zombies at a distance compared to the last game. I would have enjoyed more Rams and Butchers, we didn’t stumble upon too many of them. The new zombies are Drowners and Screamers. Drowners are wet zombies who jump out at you while you’re in the boat or running across water. They also never drop loot EVER. Screamers are absolutely annoying because they scream (surprisingly), and in doing so they stun and/or knock you down and invite all of their zombie friends to pummel you in your incapacitated state. But at least they drop good loot most of the time.

The last main feature that really stood out from the previous game for me were the barricade defense missions. At different plot intervals you get to set up barricades and fight off invading zombies with the rest of the survivors and cast from the first game. These quests are often hectic, but fun. As John they weren’t usually too difficult, until you found yourself fighting groups of zombie mini-bosses and every NPC suddenly needs your help fending off a particularly friendly zombie. I can see the point of these, but they became frustrating because I found it really stifling my creativity. In some zones the game has mounted guns you can use to pick off the zombie hordes. So I’d be all, “Sweet, I get to use a mounted machine gun!” or whatever, but by the time I got my butt up there the NPCs would start crying for help. I give up on shooting zombies, go find the NPC, and sometimes by the time I got there they’d changed their minds and took care of the problem themselves. After the zombies broke down the barricades (assuming the game gave me time to set any up) and all my mines/bombs/grenades went off, I gave up on the guns and went all  fisticuffs.

With the pathetic way Xian, Purna, Sam B and Logan defend themselves against zombie hordes in Riptide, it seems nearly impossible that they survived the events of the first game. I thought it was ironic that I was playing as John and doing item fetch quests for all of them. They’re immune too, (obviously!) but they stand around with the survivors and not one of them volunteers to go with you while you’re getting piles of random crap for everyone. I agreed all too well with John when he would intermittently cry out, “Why am I the only one doing this?!” It would’ve been cool if you could select a character escort to accompany you while questing since developers seem adamant about making local co-op obsolete nowadays. I’m not really into playing with strangers online in games that aren’t arcade fighters or free-for-alls.

And that about sums up my two cents with Dead Island: Riptide. As many other reviewers stated; if you enjoyed the first Dead Island, you’ll enjoy Riptide. Killing zombies by punting them across the screen never got old. The game was so much fun that I usually forgot about the redundancy and absurdity of it all. I’m hoping Steve-O will have time to write a supplemental post regarding the other playable characters that he revisited, as I’ve only experienced this game with John so far. I’m tempted to load Xian and give zombies a whack with the BBQ blade I received via retail bonus code, but I’m not sure slicing off zombie limbs is as satisfying as dismemberment by a great big boot to the chest cavity.

My First Book Review: Inferno, by Dan Brown!

Inferno-coverNever again will I complain about my nose.

This is my first book review. Ever. To give you guys a little bit of background on my credentials, so to speak, I am proud to say I’ve been an avid book reader for the same amount of time I’ve been a video gamer: as long as I can remember. There are no bookstores within an hour of where I live. I don’t usually follow many authors or keep track of book releases anymore. When my time for hobbies significantly declined, my book nerdiness sadly became second to my gaming geekiness.

With that being said, there are some authors whose books I still devour whenever I see a new release. Not only have I read all of Dan Brown’s novels, I’ve also read Dante’s Inferno about four times thanks to taking advanced literature courses in high school and obtaining a Creative Writing Degree. Imagine my pleasant surprise when I walked into my local Wal*Mart and laid eyes upon a release poster featuring a new book by Dan Brown with a familiar face adorning the cover.

With The DaVinci Code shaking the world a few years ago and earning itself a film adaptation as well as Angels & Demons  (thanks to Hollywood all I see is Tom Hanks when I read his books now) Dan Brown has become a New York Times bestseller and *almost* become a household name. I imagine most clergymen curse his name, but anyway, he’s pretty much guaranteed a ton of publicity whenever he releases a new book. And rightfully so. I  mean, his last novel, The Lost Symbol, had five years worth of research to back up all of his points. I believe this is the key to his success. Dan Brown’s not some random lunatic spouting cataclysmic talking points from his ass. Everything in his novels is based on fact. Facts open the general public’s eyes, scaring religious and political leaders into facing controversies head-on and airing out their dirty laundry.

If you’ve read any of Dan Brown’s novels,  you already know his style: race-against-time erudite thriller featuring a smart male lead with a smart-in-another-way cute female sidekick. At least I know what to expect, I guess, but it’d be nice if he’d push the boundaries of his self-induced limitations. You know, shake things up a bit. Inferno features the same static protagonist as three of his other novels: Robert Langdon. Langdon is a Harvard professor who uses his eidetic memory and love of snobby artsy-fartsy stuff to save the world.

This basic formula, while feeling worn at times, always manages to pull me in. There’s a variety of reasons for this. I enjoy thrillers, especially so if the author is smart about when to throw in those curveballs the reader (hopefully) isn’t suspecting. Brown is good at this. I also have a love of culture, and his books explore with vivid detail all aspects of culture; entwining art, literature, science, religion–you name it– with sophisticated brilliance. In this particular book’s case, Brown’s criminal mastermind du jour has a fixation on Dante Alighieri and the famous writer’s popular epic poem, The Divine Comedy. 

If you think you don’t know anything about The Divine Comedy, you’re wrong. We all do, you just might not realize you do. The Divine Comedy’s most popular section is the first: The Inferno. Some Catholics canonized his unique structure of hell which features a hairy upside-down Satan at its core. There was even a video game loosely based on it, for God’s sake. Dante’s Inferno was the name of it actually, and it was a pretty fun God of War knockoff if you want to check it out. Point being: our culture is saturated with hundreds of references to this classic piece of literature, and Dan Brown paid it homage in a creative manner.

Another reason I like Dan Brown’s books is because he takes the reader through detailed travels across the world. Appropriately, Inferno spends a chunk of time in Florence, Italy (Dante Alighieri’s hometown).  I have a nerdy love for ancient buildings and art. I’m also not independently wealthy and don’t foresee myself having the opportunity to travel to any of these places anytime soon. Dan Brown dedicates plenty of time to describing awesome sculptures, paintings, and famous landmarks. He takes the time to place the reader in the setting among the frantic nature of his tale. A great substitute for not being physically present. Too bad there aren’t picture guides in my edition. Yes, the book could be about 100 pages shorter if he didn’t spend as much time explaining the intricate details of certain masterpieces. However, as his work has nonfiction roots, he must show the reader he knows what he’s talking about and establish the foundation for the greater plot significance of it all. Dan Brown doesn’t usually throw in half-page descriptors for no reason.

He also somehow knows I like to feel smart. Seriously. If your memory is better than mine, (and that isn’t saying much), you’ll be amazed at the history and factual input he takes the time to address. Oftentimes I would read a page and stare off into space, trying to commit to memory the incredible stuff I’d just read. Yes, I’m a dork like that. If you’re a dork in this sense, you’ll probably enjoy this book for all the same reasons.

Dan Brown throws in overarching queries in his books. You know, those grey morality issues we don’t like to think about. Unlike many of his previous books, this bigger question isn’t particularly aimed at religious folks. In a way it is, but the unquestionable facts pertain to the human race as a whole. The “What if?” question at the end really had me pondering what my personal stance on the whole issue is.

I’m still undecided, by the way.

I’m not going to give a whole plot synopsis or spoilers, they’re pasted all over the internet. But I will say if you like conspiracy theories, thrillers, or just plain appreciate Dante’s Inferno, you should dedicate some time to this page-turner. Once I started this book the pages kept turning and before I knew it the end was nigh and I didn’t want the chase to be over.

Beachbody INSANITY!

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On top of working full time, being a new mommy, and squeezing in time for my video game hobby, I decided it was time to be serious about getting in shape and trimming some more of the baby weight I gained during my pregnancy. On the suggestion of a co-worker, I decided to take the plunge and try the now-popular INSANITY home workout program brought to us by Team Beachbody and Shaun T.

I am coming clean and admitting I did not complete the entire program. I made it to the final week (FML) and fell off the wagon. Life often gets hectic, and finding the time to work out 1-1.5 hours almost every day gets tough. Especially when my little one doesn’t have a perfect sleeping-all-night record just yet. Like a lot of gamers, I am not into sports. I play Dance Dance Revolution and jog on the treadmill for exercise. Until now, that is. So even though I didn’t complete the INSANITY program in its entirety, I’m hoping that you fellow gamers and fitness noobs will at least hear me out with some suggestions and ideas for how to get the MAX out of your time with INSANITY if you decide to take the plunge.

First of all, this is not for beginners or people with physical barriers. If you have any medical conditions I strongly suggest meeting with a doctor before beginning this program to see if it is right for you. I don’t mean to scare away anyone who is overweight and wants a challenge. But if you’re going to tackle INSANITY, you need to follow Shaun T’s instructions and be very careful with executing some of the exercises, especially in Month 2. 

Your body needs appropriate fuel to have the energy to complete these workouts. I first attempted INSANITY when my son was about 5 months old and I just couldn’t do it. Without a solid 7-8 hours of sleep and proper nutrition (I didn’t even try following the meal plan at the time) it wasn’t happening. Nutrition is an uphill battle for a lot of people because regulating how we eat and changing our mindset about food is a 24/7 thing. Our society inundates us with food-like products that do nothing but addict and fatten us. Combine advertising, lack of transparency, and our hectic lifestyles, eating right seems nearly impossible sometimes. The INSANITY nutrition guide is a helpful, informational menu which simply explains how many calories you need and what kinds of foods to eat to help achieve your weight loss/toning goals. Michi’s Ladder and a list of building blocks are also included for the pickier eaters out there to help substitute foods that you don’t like in the meal plan. 

In terms of food, you can expect to eat a LOT of the following foods: raw/steamed veggies, raw fruits, poultry and other lean meats, and low-fat dairy products such as 1% cottage cheese and 0% Greek yogurt. Oh, and peanut butter. Peanut butter is great if you need a quick protein/healthy fat fix. The meal plan is divided into 5 small meals with adjustments for individual caloric needs. Eating every three hours was a big adjustment for me after limiting myself to a 1200 calorie diet. After plugging in my measurements with the provided formula, it allowed me 1800 calories a day to prevent my body from going into starvation mode. I did my  best to eat the foods in the meal plan. Eating the exact meals and measurements was a time consuming hurdle I didn’t exactly overcome. My sane compromise was eating the foods in the meal plan and using the MyFitnessPal app on my phone to track my protein/carb/fat ratios and calories. MyFitnessPal is an incredible free resource for anyone interested in calorie and fitness tracking.

Beachbody’s INSANITY program is a 60-day workout regimen. Not too long but not too short. In order to help the time go by and for motivation, try to get a workout buddy. The closest thing I had to a workout partner was my sister who popped over to do a workout with me once in a while when my brother-in-law was home to entertain their son. Oh, and my hubby did a Fit Test with me one day instead of going to the gym. If you can’t get someone else to commit to the program with you, go to teambeachbody.com and make an account. You’ll automatically get assigned a coach. Too late in my quest, I stumbled upon the website and a great group of very informational and supportive people. Some are fitness gurus while others are normal, busy people like myself trying to make a lifestyle change.

As embarrassing as it probably is, take before and after pictures. Don’t just do your weight, do your measurements too. I didn’t lose much in the weight department, but I went down at least one pant size and have more muscle definition than before. My Fit Test results always improved as well, so I knew my cardio and strength were improving. When you first start the program it’ll most likely seem like an insurmountable obstacle, but don’t give up! As you repeat the workouts you’ll find yourself taking fewer and fewer breaks and doing more and more reps of the exercises. You’ll still be exhausted at the end. And, more importantly, you should be proud of yourself for pushing play and digging deeper!

There are a variety of workouts in Month 1, followed by a recovery week, and then a new round of workouts to kick your butt in Month 2. The philosophy behind the exercises are reversed intervals: Shaun T swapped the typical interval sets. This means you push yourself for longer and get a shorter break compared to traditional interval workout programs. Aside from the cardio conditioning days, there will always be interval sets to allow you to grab a drink of water and check your heart rate. I liked the move sets and the general flow of the workouts. Just when I thought I couldn’t take anymore, it was time for a new exercise focusing on different body parts. Mostly. There’s a crap-ton of squats incorporated in everything. Your thighs will BURN. I love how firm my quads feel now, and there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Even on the “recovery” days I was sweating and feeling the burn.

Shaun T is the man behind and in front of this madness. I have come to really respect and adore him. He stands behind his product, that much is evident. He is full of passion and energy. It is hard not to be inspired by him. I started following him on Facebook recently. He posts motivational and inspirational thoughts daily. He also takes the time to read and respond to comments and questions made by fans. AND he recently did an INSANITY birthday challenge following his 60 day program, posting his Fit Test results, and tracking his personal struggles and progress with the program. If a fitness instructor with six pack abs who can do over 100 power jumps in a minute can admit he has his days, that tells me he has no problem admitting he’s only human and shares in the journey to fitness… even with the people who purchase his products. 

A great feature of this program is the lack of equipment. All you will need is whatever you like to wear on your feet while working out, and a mat. Even the mat is optional. I strongly suggest purchasing a mat, some comfy sneakers or no-slip socks,  a face towel or sweatband (if you wear makeup I guarantee it will sweat into your eyes and make them burn more than your muscles) and a heart rate monitor! I just got my heart rate monitor, and I wish I had it this entire time. If you’re really pushing yourself during the workouts, having a heart rate monitor will help you stay in your target HR zone and show you how many calories you’re burning. As I track my calories via MyFitnessPal, this would’ve been a big motivational factor for me. There’s always next round, I suppose! 

Would I recommend Beachbody’s INSANITY program to others? Well, it really depends on the person. You need a high level of commitment and flexibility. Everyone’s bodies are different. I had to do a lot of experimenting to figure out how to get my workouts done and how to see results on the scale. For me, it took getting my carb ratio below 40% and getting at least 60% of my calories before I was done work. And drinking a lot of water so I didn’t retain quite so much. If you’re thinking about doing INSANITY, watch some videos so you don’t go into it quite as blind as I did. Shaun T managed to say just the right things at the right moments to keep me in tune with the workouts and see them through until the end. My problem was both time management with the workouts and lack of motivation after I met one of my personal goals, which was to fit into my summer shorts from two years ago. I think that deserves a big cheer itself! 

Right now I am killing time with a less demanding workout program by Shaun T, Hip Hop Abs. It is older and a little cheesy, but it is fun and doesn’t feel like a chore like INSANITY was becoming. I’m considering looking up a HHA/INSANITY hybrid so I can get the best of both worlds until Shaun T’s T25 comes out this summer. 25 minutes a day 5 days a week… I can commit to that!

Bioshock Infinite

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I’ve been put to task, given the honor of posting my opinion piece on Bioshock Infinite, after finishing it.  I have to be completely honest; when I saw the teaser trailer at E3 a few years back, I was a bit skeptical, to say the least.  The visual style was awkward from what I’ve come to expect from a Bioshock game, and the polar opposite locale of choice had me eyeing the title warily.  This was a few years ago, and eventually I had basically forgotten about it, until its release drew nearer and I saw the buzz it generated in press.  The cynic in me initially scoffed at its rave reviews, because let’s be realistic here; how often do main reviewing industries lambaste triple-A titles, despite how sorely they deserve it?  My scoff was almost audible when they sung glorious praises about the AI.  Hah!  Good AI?  I’ve played the last 3 Resident Evils, I’ve played with co-op bots in shooters back to the N64 days, I’ve drudged through MMO escort quests, and these people claim this game has good AI?  This I had to see.

When it comes to genres I hold near and dear (in which, survival horror ranks pretty highly), I can be pretty cruel with the expectations I hold for sequels.  I spent a good three hours playing Resident Evil 4 before the sheer fun of gameplay broke through the bitter betrayal I felt at the abandonment in style.  Don’t even get me started on Silent Hill 4 and beyond.  I’m thinking it was partially because Bioshock 2 was pretty watered down (ba dum tshhh), but I didn’t hold the bar very high for Infinite.  And I have to tell you, I should do that more often.

With Resident Evil’s current identity crisis, Diablo 3 not knowing what the hell kind of game it wants to be, and “Jesus Christ Kingdom Hearts what in the actual Hell?”, I’m ready to take an IP that tries to reinvent itself and switch genres out back and give it the Old Yeller treatment.  So, when we sat down and fired up Bioshock Infinite, my expectation sat at about Little-Sister-shin-high level.  And, for the first time in a long while, I was pleasantly surprised; extremely so.

To all the purists out there; just don’t go into the game expecting a survival horror-esque game.  The gameplay is virtually unchanged from its predecessors, but the environment couldn’t be farther from its roots.  The character models are highly stylized and cartoony, and that adds to one thing this game has oozing from every virtual pore; charm.  The game takes place in 1912, and the old-timey unabashed racism is apparent, but not offensively so.  I can’t imagine the amount of tip-toeing you have to do to keep with the industrious, workaholic atmosphere central to the game, in peak slavery time, without offending someone along the line.  I feel that the matter was handled rather tastefully; incorporated but not exploited.

If you’ve played the first two Bioshock titles, you will be at home with the control layout for the third, right down to creatively combining Plasmids…I mean Vigors, for enhanced effects and maximum hilarity.  I almost kick myself for not thinking to try the following example while we were playing; you have a spell called Murder of Crows, which attacks nearby enemies with a flock of crows.  It deals mild damage, but incapacitates them.  Apparently, you can then shock the everloving bejeezus out of the birds (and the pecked enemies as well), which is, itself, almost worth re-firing up the game.  I’m fairly certain you can set them on fire as well.  Environmental hazards are as prevalent as ever, although I can’t personally attest to their potency; I was too busy headshotting everything in the free country with a sniper rifle, you see.  The recent addition of Skylines serving as a sort of fully-controllable railgun shooting sequence was a neat little twist, even if navigating to your objective on them can be a little confusing.  There were even a handful of customizations to make it more effective, which I dabbled in toward the end of the game.  Again, it’s tough to say; an exploding head probably would have exploded at 30% less damage either way, but DAMAGE.

Speaking of customization, I’m sort of on the fence when it comes to the gear.  You have four slots for equipment (Hat, Shirt, Shoes, and Pants), and there is certainly no shortage of options.  They seem highly situational, with a small handful being all-around-awesome (we settled on the hat which made us temporarily invincible when we stuffed our fat face, and a piece of gear that granted ammunition upon a kill 40% of the time).  I was disappointed that we didn’t come across a set of gear that turned us into the wrench-wielding terror of the depths you could become in the first one.  Sure, there were some enhancements for melee, but nothing remotely close to the melee focus (and even the drill focus of Bioshock 2) that you could choose in the past.  However, on default difficulty, switching gear on the fly was hardly mandatory but nearly always fun.  I mean, what isn’t fun about dropping from the Skyline like a bat out of Hell, complete with an exploding ring of fire?

To round out my opinion on the gameplay, we get to the AI.  The game’s objective is to escort a young lady from her ivory tower, initially to an unnamed third party.  This girl, Elizabeth, accompanies you throughout the city, Columbia, while an army chases you down to retrieve her.  The claims about her spectacular AI aren’t entirely fair, because she cannot be targeted or damaged by enemy attacks.  Which is fine, hell, it’s even awesome, but it really makes for an unfair comparison drawn to -real- AI companions, a la Sheva, Ashley, et cetera.  What I believe a lot of people rave about, is that she’s smart about the in-combat assistance she grants.  When you are low on health, she tosses you health.  When you’re on your last clip of ammo, she’ll lob some your way.  She even refills your Salts (the game’s resource for using your Vigors).  Of course, there’s an internal timer on all of these items; it seems health replenishment being the longest, followed by Salts a little more frequently, and ammo the most frequent.  She was a tremendous help in the tougher battles, certainly, but when she is essentially not in combat, I can’t rate her compared to combat AI of other games.  I can tell you that she never, ever let me run out of sniper rifle rounds, and she’s gold in my book for that.  There were times where I’d be a bird sneeze from death and she would toss me ammo, causing me to give her the “WTF?!” treatment as a Handyman practiced percussion on my fleshy bits, but she’s at the mercy of her cooldowns.  All in all, her assistance was a great help, and the large-scale battles were scaled accordingly.  I just have a hard time attributing that to spectacular AI when she literally only has three things to manage, with respective cooldowns.  Four, if you count using her tears, but those are 100% player controlled.  Now, if she had to duck enemy fire, return fire while toggling multiple tears on her own and still keep me topped on the three resources, a) THAT would be extremely smart combat AI, and b) she pretty much wouldn’t need the player anymore.  Before getting into the aforementioned tear ability, I want to talk two more minor gameplay points.  First, the Handyman are Infinite’s answer to the Big Daddy/Big Sister.  I wish I could say more about them, but the fact is you only encounter 4-5 throughout the course of the game.  By the time I had ironed out a strategy to try to kill them with minimal damage and ammo expenditure, we had fought the last one!  Considering the shoes they had to fill, in my opinion they were unremarkable and disappointingly unrewarding to kill.  There’ll be no wallet filling from this games’ tanks.  Secondly, there is a very brief Rapture visit, and I honestly think I’d rather it not have happened.  It was entirely inconsequential, served the plot in no meaningful way, and was just shoehorned in for the sake of self-referencing.  No Splicers, no Big Daddy, no Andrew Ryan, nothing but the city under the sea, then you leave.  A whopping thirty seconds.

Okay, on to Elizabeth’s tearing, which is a huge point of the plot, making it a good segue from gameplay to story.  You find out early that Elizabeth has an ability to open ‘tears’ to alternate realities, and pull things from that world to your own.  This helps in combat in various ways; summoning reinforcements, supplies, or cover.  Both her and Booker (the player character) also have the option of traversing these tears, bringing themselves to the alternate reality.  Without spoiling too much, this naturally has consequences of varying degrees, and allows the what-ifs to run rampant through your mind as key characters alternate between the worlds.  Players more astute than I have drawn very elaborate plot analyses, attempting to wrap up the goings-on within the laws of the games’ rules, which are easily missed if you let yourself get swept away in the fast-paced fun.  If you intend on playing the game, I would advise you to stay away from these posts until you’ve completed the game itself; I would have hated to have the ending spoiled.  Without spoiling it myself, I will say that the more we thought of the little details leading to it, the more sense it made, bit by bit.

And the best, in my opinion, has been saved for last, and that is the atmosphere.  Nearly everything about this game is just so damned endearing; from Daisy Fitzroy’s appropriate accent, to the old-town brainwashing video strips, right down to Mr. Fink’s outrageous mustache and top hat.  The PA loudspeaker is ever-present, enforcing the dogma of a hard day’s work, accepting your societal role, likening joblessness to anarchy.  Despite being perpetually aloft, the cloud city of Columbia has a very gritty, salt-of-the earth working class.  So relatable, in fact, you could find yourself siding with a radical group of revolutionaries working to liberate the city from the antagonist’s rule.  Booker and Elizabeth find themselves embroiled in the city-wide conflict as they race for Elizabeth’s freedom, catching glimpses of the grander scheme of things through the occasional tear.

As is quickly becoming the custom (for better or worse), the characters truly become fleshed out via discoverable audio logs, or in this case voxophones.  It is through a handful of these late-game that threads start to connect to one another, while a good deal of them offer a bit of humor.  Either way, they are more often than not a pleasant aside, and absolutely worthy of being sought out and listened to.  A good deal of the characters’, uhh…character, is revealed in their ramblings, and in the case of the more shadier folks, it offers primary insight as to what they’re after.

I’ll wrap this up by hitting on two of the final aspects of atmosphere I feel were knocked out of the park by Irrational Games; character models and voice acting.  As I initially stated, the jump to a more animated style had me skeptical, but after shooting the breeze with a few of Columbia’s residents, they grew on me.  The style reminded me of Fable, of all things, which attributed to the overall charm of the game.  After spending some time experiencing the best and worst of Columbia, I can’t imagine it being any better with the gritty, somber, realistic cast of the previous installments.  Elizabeth, in particular, looks like she was torn right out of Disney World.  She is, without a doubt, the most expressive model in the entire game.  It’s very easy to read her expressions, her sarcasm is painted all over her face, her “Are you f***ing kidding me” looks are among my favorite memories of the game.

This is, of course, backed up by the voice acting of the game.  The main characters’ voice acting was more than just bearable, it was enjoyable.  The runner up for my gaming genre of choice would be RPGs, and as such I’m accustomed to hearing the worst voice acting in the business.  Hearing a main character who reads off his lines with a sense of being and naturality, and not as if he were a member of the Borg collective, was great.  Elizabeth’s voice acting was similarly pleasant.  Her skepticism and sarcasm were evident in her tone and accompanying expression, and that’s something you don’t see nearly enough in games these days.  And I -loved- the brother and sister twins’ bickering and bantering.  Their tone was bone-dry and was absolutely perfect for the character type they represented, easily one of the more effective comic relief characters I’ve seen recently.

There you have it, the record of my journey through Columbia.  If you’re a long time series fan, do your best to keep an open mind going into Infinite.  It may not be as eerie and dismal as Rapture, but let Irrational prove to you that they’re not a one-trick-pony and can capture vibrant, charming and grandiose just as well.  With a colorful cast of actual characters and not simple archetypes, you won’t be disappointed.  It easily trumps Bioshock 2, and I’d go so far as to say it rivals the first, even though I love them each for different reasons.  If you’re not a Bioshock veteran, worry not; there is little to no continuity between this and the first two titles, you will not be left in the dark.  On the contrary, you’ll be left in the big, huge, bright, metal bird-laden sky.