After a serious slump in the game release schedule through the summer, the holiday season is upon us, with every game publisher on the planet hurling out their very best to sop up those sweet, sweet gift-buying dollars. For those of us without unlimited supplies of disposable income, it can be a vexing time as a gamer. Reviews are the only tool we have to make the tough decisions about what games to buy and which ones can wait for the discount bin or be ignored.
Unfortunately, this post won’t be any help at all. The game-release equivalent of “sweeps” opened with a triad of gorgeous FPS titles in rapid succession. Bioshock, The Orange Box, and Halo 3 are all worth your hard-earned coin. Hell, if you don’t already own an Xbox 360, these three titles make a pretty compelling argument for shooter fans.
First up is Irrational’s highly anticipated Bioshock. A spiritual successor to the legendary System Shock titles, Bioshock sends the player hurtling to the bottom of the sea, where Andrew Ryan, an Objectivist visionary, has built the City of Rapture, a paradise of free market ideals with no constraints for the like-minded artistic and scientific visionaries he recruited. Unfortunately for the protagonist, the place has seen better days. Genetic modification led to massive mutations, violence in the streets, and the total collapse of the city’s infrastructure. Now, roving gangs of “splicers” assault each other in the leaking, rusting ruins, while creepy little girls harvest genetic material from corpses, accompanied by hulking monstrosities intent on ending the existence of any that interfere. You must navigate this labyrinthine underwater “utopia,” looking for answers and an escape, while simultaneously navigating some ethical dilemmas looking for the power you need to survive. The game is stunningly gorgeous, all rendered in high Art Deco style, and the only thing more impressive than the visuals is the story. The tale of Objectivism-gone-wrong is more philosophically sophisticated than the average video game, much less the average shooter. Toss in the excellent creepy atmospherics, and you’ve got the makings of a top-notch game. The only let-down is the final act, which seems like a rush to a formulaic conclusion. Still, well worth your coin, especially if you’re a fan of any of the game’s grab bag of influences.
The past week also brought the release of Valve’s Orange Box, collecting all the available material of the Half-Life 2 franchise, including the main game, Episode One, and the new Episode Two. Alongside the continuing adventures of Gordon Freeman, you get Team Fortress 2, a high-camp revamp of the original multiplayer classic, with 9 playable classes all capable of their own brand of mayhem. Finally, there is Portal, which may be the most original title of the bunch, and is, to my mind, easily the most fun. Equal parts Cube and Paranoia, the 3-hour game unfolds with one of the most darkly funny stories I’ve seen in ages. The various physics puzzles, solvable only through the liberal application of a hand-held wormhole generator, are accompanied at each stage by the upbeat but sinister encouragement of an A.I. that has clearly lost its mind. By the endgame, you’re dealing with a passive-aggressive ex-girlfriend version of HAL-9000, with all the hilarity and implied threats of violence that entails. Throw all these titles in a box for the price of one new game, and you’ve got a deal much too sweet to pass up.
Last, but by no means least, comes Bungie’s sci-fi magnum opus, Halo 3. After the franchise’s second installment left everybody hanging over the lamest cliff in sequel history, I was less enthused about this than I was the above two titles. Despite this, I got into the multiplayer beta and tooled around, which renewed my interest in the multiplayer, if nothing else. By the time release week rolled around, I could no longer deny the siren song of Master Chief. I held out for a few days after street date, but couldn’t stay away. On the whole, I’m very glad I didn’t. The third installment basically takes all that was best about the first two, polishes the hell out of ’em, and delivers an epic conclusion befitting of the epic trilogy. Co-op campaign play makes for one of the best times I’ve had with a 360 title, and the multiplayer component sets the bar for online competitive solo and team play for any shooter moving forward. On top of all that, the new “Forge” system allows for complete customization of maps and game types, and an integrated file server client allows you to upload and share your custom creations with the rest of the Halo-playing universe. And the cherry on the top of that is a built-in film editor that lets you create your own highlight reels, so you can prove you did whatever ridiculous thing you say you did (like, say, just for example, killing two opponents with a single round from a sniper rifle at a few hundred meters).
Despite my best efforts to find faults and be skeptical, I’ve got to recommend all three of these games for fans of the shooter genre. Perhaps most interesting to me is that the three games play almost nothing alike, with Halo’s sweeping outdoor battlescapes contrasted with Bioshock’s claustrophobic tunnels, and Half-life’s puzzle-solving and intricate physics engine contrasted with the straight-ahead guns-blazing militaristic approach of Halo.