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The Imperfect Art Of Judging A Game Before It's Out

Last Friday morning, my words on this site told you that BioShock Infinite, the long-in-the-works first-person shooter from one of the most respected game development studios in the world, was coming along very well. On Friday evening, if you were watching Spike’s Video Game Awards, your eyes might have told you otherwise. What can you believe?

An old friend has long said that we see games with our hands, which is pretty much the problem at the root of last week’s divergent reactions. Words from reporters and critics are nice, but they can’t replace the feel of a game. Graphics and sounds convey a lot,. But if you could get an accurate feel for a game just by watching it, you wouldn’t mind if I dropped by your house, sat down on your couch and played the new game you just bought in front of you.

Your hands couldn’t get to BioShock Infinite last week, and therefore you’re left with my words and your eyes, two inherently imperfect tools for the job of you discerning in advance if a new game is any good.

Let’s get specific.

I played BioShock Infinite for more than four hours on Thursday afternoon, under the supervision of people from the game’s publisher and development studio. I played from the start. (In case you’re wondering, there will be no spoilers in this piece.). I essentially live-blogged my experience, but didn’t publish the liveblog until Friday morning, since that’s when the coverage embargo set by the publisher lifted. That’s when it was ok for me to write about it.

From my not-quite-liveblog you can discern that the game is very much like the first BioShock. It is set in a fascinating, exotic place that is fun to explore. It puts the player in a lot of firefights, and gives the player an unusually diverse set of tools and tactics to use directly and indirectly against enemies. It’s very much a character game and gently tugs at the player to care about who the people in the game are — including the one you’re controlling.

I’d come into the event leery. I’d enjoyed Irrational Games’ first BioShock. I liked BioShock 2 which most of the people at Irrational weren’t involved in. I’d marveled at BioShock Infinite‘s live E3 2011 gameplay demo. I then lamented the game’s delays and grew concerned regarding departures from Irrational, word of cut features and an overall sense that what some might call business-as-usual in the complicated craft of creating games was, in this case, a flock of red flags warning that this game was in trouble.

The day in August when we ran our report about the troubles facing the game, Irrational’s chief game creator and the mastermind behind BioShock, Ken Levine, told me that I’d soon be able to play the game and judge it for myself. And so I did. From the start. For more than four hours. And I’ll be damned if that wasn’t four of the best hours of gaming I’ve gotten in this year.

On Thursday night, I wrote:

I wasn’t going to lose sleep tonight if BioShock Infinite was a stinker. But I’m nevertheless happy that it showed so well.

It plays more like the old game than I’d expected.

It looks nothing like the old one, as I’d hoped.

Both of those are very good things. Be hopeful. They might nail this one yet.

Then you saw the trailer on Saturday.

  • Kotaku reader safjx: What’s with all the 20 FPS trailers recently? It’s like they’re running this stuff on six-year-old hardware!
  • Kotaku reader Nicholas Payne: “I was really disappointed with this trailer. It had the same vibe as the new cover art for me, which was gritty explosive action shooter #492. That’s not what BioShock is, which is why I love BioShock.”
  • Kotaku reader Shakespeare: Very poor showing. Awful framerate, the same gameplay, 2nd-class animation. And how many freakin’ times do they have to design Elizabeth!?
  • Kotaku reader Jester Bomb: Iron sights, the “X” hit indicator, the frantic first person story telling, yeah I think us Bioshock 1 fans still have the right to be worried.
  • NeoGAF reader g35twinturbo: “…I like how one of the AI went dumb, and was literally standing there while he was attacking it. Right before the big mech dude.”
  • That last one is presumably in reference to this moment.

I’ve seen comments from people who were excited by the trailer. I’ve read reports from people who liked it. But I saw a lot of negativity out there, certainly more than you’d expect a VGA-closing demo presented by Ken Levine himself to have generated.

So much for my words. Your eyes got many of you worried.

Watching the trailer, I can see why. It’s got a ton of action. It makes the game seem like a shooter that has more combat than character moments. It feels more Crysis or even Call of Duty, and I think it’s fair to assume that this was intentional. Ken Levine knows that his critically-acclaimed series isn’t commonly known by the average fratboy Call of Duty gamer. He now also knows it won’t have multiplayer, is what often hooks many of the shooter fans out there. This kind of trailer is one way to grab their attention.

But what of the enemy who soaks up bullets? And the framerate? And the iron sights? The enemies were plenty tough and aggressive when I fought them. The game ran fine on the PS3 hardware I used during my session with the game. The iron sights? I forgot I had them most of the time but appreciated them when I needed to snipe.

Just about anything in the trailer can be explained away by those of us who played the game, though that isn’t to say the game we played was perfect. I didn’t like that enemies sweated hit points, Borderlands-style, when you shoot them. That’s a new option, but as I learned later, it can be turned off. Once, when I went the “wrong way” in a transitional level that was supposed to connect one major area of the game to another, I got the framerate to chug. And for all I know, the game nosedives in quality after its first stellar 4.5 hours. Hey, it could happen.

***

There are many ways for me or you to be dead wrong about an upcoming game.

We recently declined to send one of our reporters to an EA preview event. We didn’t have the time to get someone out there, but I was also worried. Dead Space 3 would be there. I’d seen Dead Space 3 a few times since May and I kept seeing it in just five or 10-minute chunks. In those instances, I’d seen the game with my hands. I’d played it. But I’d played it briefly. Too briefly, I think, to accurately size it up.

That’s the other wrinkle here: brevity is the enemy of appreciating a game. Most games need more than 30 seconds or even five minutes to reveal to you how good or bad they are. Before that, you can be tricked.

On Friday morning, my headline read: I Played 4.5 Hours Of BioShock Infinite, And I’m No Longer Worried. That much time with a game in my own hands, playing it from the start, makes me feel confident. But I understand why your eyes can make you doubt. I understand that even my impressions might not discover something horribly flawed later in the game.

***

In early 2010, I attended a speech by one of the great game designers of all time, Will Wright. He introduced an idea I’d never considered before, that we compare real games to the idealised versions in our heads, and that we do this before we ever play the real version of the game. This is how I wrote it up:

Wright brought in an example from the lives of video gamers. This one involves a gamer going into a store intending to get a game. Maybe they’ve heard of the game. Maybe they’ve read about it. Maybe they know just what the back of the box they’re holding in the store tells you. But as soon as they’re thinking about it and considering it, the potential gamers are… playing the game. “They are already playing this low-res version in their imagination of what the game is going to be like.”

If they then buy the game, and play the higher-res version that shows up on their computer or TV screen – and if it’s not as good as the one they played in their head – that’s a problem.

If the game they play is prettier or better version of what they played in their head, that’s great.

In a way, we’ve all already played BioShock Infinite , mostly in our heads. What we’re waiting for next is a chance to play it in our hands, all the way through, to know how the BioShock Infinite we imagined compares to the one that we’ll be able to buy and play on March 26. It’s a miracle that any game can stand up to our hopes of what it can be.

This is how it is with any game: there’s the version we imagine, the one we see, and the one we touch. For now, for BioShock Infinite, I’m trusting my hands.

For the latest news on this game, visit

Kotaku's Bioshock Infinite Game Hub

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