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.


Comments

    I honestly did not like the first Bioshock, so the VGA trailer for Infinite made me excited cause it showed that they fixed my main issue with it, that the gunplay was boring as shite and the plasmids were of little to no use at all.

    And I absolutely cannot understand why a trailer full of combat footage comes to be seen as indicative of the game being a by-the-numbers shooter. As I said before, the gunplay is interesting a way that is atypical of the genre and what do you expect from a gameplay trailer? The game is an RPG infused shooter, what do you expect the trailer to have, Booker picking flowers?

      I'm in the same boat. I mean, the first Bioshock certainly wasn't bad...I enjoyed it enough to finish it...but I was expecting a lot more out of it given the critical acclaim it received. There were some sections in particular that just seemed to really drag and bring the overall experience down, such as that level where you needed to go backwards and forwards taking photos of splicers (and the hacking mini game got old pretty quickly). A lot of the plasmids also seemed pretty useless, and the story didn't start making any kind of sense until after you kill Andrew Ryan. Ironically it was the very last level, where you play as the Big Daddy, which I found most interesting.

      Then you have Bioshock 2, which I found a bit easier to get into. They fixed the hacking mini game, they tweaked the pacing and introduced the dual-wield plasmid/weapon system. It also wasn't nearly as long as the first one, so it didn't overstay its welcome. Still had its flaws though (that level that had you going around in circles in the amusement park was annoying, and the charge ability was used to progress the game just once). Again though it was the final levels, where there were some sections you actually played as a Little Sister, which were the most interesting (the final level in the launch bay though was pretty standard). Could it be called a true sequel though, when there was nothing in it that couldn't have been an expansion pack?

      I'm hoping Bioshock Infinite finds a way to be compelling while retaining what made Bioshock good and taking out the bad. It's a balancing act for sure.

      Last edited 11/12/12 10:48 am

        Yep, I had to abandon Bioshock on PS3, I found it too difficult (the hacking if I remember correctly). I didn't enjoy Bioshock 2 either at first, but perservered and got into it - in the end I liked it but then i've liked most FPSs. I don't think it was anything special. Great graphics, lovely themes, but not as engaging (for me) as the FEAR or CoD (or Battlefield) series. As memorable as Duke Nukem Forever if I'm honest (which I liked).

        To me, Bioshock Infinite looks incredible - in terms of its graphics. Given that I'm a more experienced FPS gamer now, and I did get used to Bioshock 2s plasmids, I'm not really worried that I won't be able to cope with Infinite, but at the same time I already presume that it will play much like any other FPS - they all do. Sure it will have a few bells and whistles, and that will offer a bit more fun, and a bit more of a chore.

        I'm disappointed only the US version will come with the original Bioshock as I traded in my copy of Bioshock in anticipation of getting it again with Infinite. That's annoying.

          I played both on PC. The only way to play FPS games :)

          If you really want to have another go at the first Bioshock you should be able to pick up a copy for $20 in a bargain bin by now.

            I don't consider $20 a bargain for a game that i've already owned and chose to discard. $5 and i'll pick it up. As I say, I personally think that it's over-rated, or at least simply not particularly exciting for my tastes.

      You are kind of right. Everyone now tries to pick on any game that shows shooting in its game play. Cause they think that they're smart like that. Because "That's just another crap COD game" everyone is trying to think differently. Making everyone think the same way. Stop judging the game for god's sake. Just cause it has some shooting in it doesn't mean it's another COD rip off. Now a days everything is a COD rip off... FAR OUT!!!

    For once I totally agree - from top to bottom - I agree. Unfortunately Bioshock Infinite is still an unknown quantity that none of us will be able to resolve until the final code is released. I hope Levine gets it just right in the end. I hope we don't have to play Big Daddy and have our Little Sisters extract every last ounce of Adam out of him for stuffing it up because I don't know many other developers who are building narratives the way Levine is attempting to do.

    Played the second one, it was all right... nothing too special. Good concept I suppose, I don't see the big deal. Don't see the big deal with infinite either, looks sorta boring but I might give it a chance when it comes out if I have some spare cash.

      BioShock 2 was a not-too-special followup to a game that was absolutely amazing in 2007.

      Sometimes these things don't age well.

    Never played the second one. Looked like they basically just re-printed over the top of the Bioshock 1 discs, so I wasn't interested.

    Adored the first game though, and the third looks great.

    I finished Bioshock 1, and found it be very "meh". I couldn't see why everyone loved it so much. It was an average shooter with some minor gimmicks, and just about the laziest form of storytelling a game can get.

    Infinite has always just been the smallest blip on my radar, but over the last few days, that blip is getting even smaller.

    The negativity strikes me as a little surprising. The video looked like a very competent first person shooter with some neat additions and rather lovely art. It does still suffer from not really being the game that I want to play in that setting, something that it shares with its predecessor, but that's a personal concern. I still fully intend to play and expect to enjoy Infinite.

      I wasn't that surprised by the negativity to be honest, as it's more or less what I've come to expect from the internet these days. Cynicism and negativity seem to be running rampant throughout these communities, which explains the phrase which I'm hearing more and more often "don't read the comments".

      Of course, I'm not surprised by people reactions, but that's not to say I'm not disappointed by them.

        I think gaming media, and likewise with the comments, are typically very black or white - they're frequently over excited, or dashed negativity.

        Infinite had its time of high praise and anticipation - which to me seems it deserves - it's graphics, or rather art style, look stunning. To be honest, that's all I have to say about it - I only think it will have good gameplay on the basis that for me pretty much all FPSs have good gameplay, and this is made by a multaward winning team and this is their premium title - so I'd be surprised if it weren't to have good gameplay. I'm not going to buy into the story, I don't need to - ok it has a magical Robotic Songbird - I just can't buy into that kind of thing.

        By the look of it I'll wait for this game to fall to a budget price - both Bioshock and Bioshock fell to $20 in a reasonable amount of time, and even MW3 can be had for $24 now - games aren't holding their full price value for very long at the moment - maybe FPS fatigue, maybe because we're at the end of the generation.

    The two weapon limit still gets a big "Fuck you" from me

    Stephen, you may want to have a word at the marketing folks for Bioshock Infinite. They may be portraying a different game in their trailer than the one you had personal experience with,
    and/or are trying to address a different audience to your readers at Kotaku - let alone fans of Bioshock 1 & 2 (like myself).
    edit:
    as you wrote "there’s the version we imagine, the one we see, and the one we touch." - but there's also the odd versions that the out-of-touch marketing types unfortunately force onto us in poorly executed trailers, or changes to a game for the worse.
    The protagonist of FarCry3 probably came from the marketing team telling the writers that they had to create that annoying, mindless Shia Le-Boef caricature called Jason in order "tap into the xtreme sports hipster market".

    Last edited 13/12/12 4:12 pm

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