If you'll recall, I got some games for my birthday. I thought it would be fun to briefly review them to let my readers know whether they might like the games or not. Keep in mind they are the PS3 versions, but in all cases are also available on the 360. I have not read about any significant differences between the console versions, but if there are differences at all, I'll note them.
Tomb Raider: Underworld
Here's the bottom line: If you played Tomb Raider: Legend and Anniversary during the last console generation and liked them, you will continue to enjoy Underworld, which ends the trilogy. By the time the game ends, all of your questions are answered and all plot strings wrapped up. The game is drop-dead gorgeous, and definately a contender for "best graphics of the year." Crystal Dynamics has managed to incorporate wonderfully diverse and lush environments--every level feels organic, and the sense of scale is beyond compare. The water effects especially should be lauded. Lara's animations have improved thanks to motion capture, and her face is able to convey a bevvy of emotions that the last console generation wasn't able to capture. The graphical powerhouse, however, actually creates a few problems: namely, figuring out where you can and cannot climb or move to. Ledges and rocks meld into the background elements with such ease that finding your way around becomes more challenging than it needs to be. Additionally, there are minor framerate issues.The game's real stumbling block, however, is the camera, which requires a level of manhandling I am unaccustomed to. Virtually every change in direction requires a change in camera angle, and there are times when the camera does not want to behave as it fights between what it wants to show you and what you want to see. The game is also startlingly low on unlockable content. Concept art is great, but where are the alternate outfits? The red-blooded male in me longs for the jaw-dropping "evening gown" and "bikini" costumes of Legend (they'd look a whole lot better on the PS3). These costumes were absent in Anniversary, and actually the costumes in that game were disappointing (ooh, skinless model and burned Natla? Great!). You do get one alternate costume upon beating Underworld, but it's only available in one level, and it's really just an different color of the default costume. What really gets my goat is that 360 owners can look forward to two exclusive downloadable costumes soon. There is no DLC scheduled for the PS3 version, which really bothers me.
Okay, I'm just gonna come out and say it: One of the guilty pleasures of the Tomb Raider franchise (even the Crystal Dynamics series) is seeing Lara's cleavage bouncing around while she explores ancient, eldrich ruins. Throughout the entire series run, that "feature" has remained omnipresent. To see it cut entirely from Underworld is, frankly, a letdown. Moving on...
I've heard many online complaints of game-ending bugs plaguing all three versions of the game, but Eidos has only acknowledged one, on the Wii. I will admit that the game can be a little "glitchy" if you're trying to wedge Lara into environmental places she's not supposed to go. Often she'll get stuck in an animation loop, but simply ducking or jumping away usually solves the problem. Tomb Raider: Underworld is going to appeal to a very certain kind of gamer, but for that one type, it's a wonderful game.
Hey, what about the Wii? Yes, Underworld is also on the Wii, but it seems to be a port of the PS2 version, which means that the production values are much, much lower. If I had to go with one, I'd choose the Wii version, just because the Legend engine looks better on the Wii than the PS2. At least, that's what Anniversary taught me.
At the other end of the gaming spectrum, Bioshock is a first-person shooter. Back when the 360 version hit stands, it was hailed among many publications as the "Game of the Year" for its twisted, disturbing storyline that channeled Ayn Rand, and freedom of choice in terms of gameplay. The art direction is stunning, I will say that. The game takes place in 1960. Your plane crashes into the sea near a lighthouse, and with nowhere else to go, you swim toward it. As the doors swing wide, you are greeted by a bust of Andrew Ryan, founder of the underwater dystopia Rapture. You descend to this sprawling city in a bathysphere, and while your purpose is not immediately clear, it soon becomes one of survival and vengeance. Bioshock indeed has a gripping story, aided immensely by the 20's and 30's-inspired art direction and soundtrack. It's as if time stopped in Rapture, save the scientific achievements brought forth in its depths. Although the art style is entirely different than Underworld, it is just as beautiful. The story is told through Doom 3-like voice recordings, but also through the propoganda written on the walls and the messages proclaimed from overhead speakers.
As a shooter, Bioshock definately feels different than industry standards like Halo 3 or Call of Duty 4. You cycle through a fairly large number of guns (and one melee weapon) with your right hand, and an ever-expanding group of magical powers with your left hand. Rapture's scientists developed the power to manipulate genetic codes, giving people aesthetic or military powers in the process. Originally you could simply change the size of your nose, but later people were given the ability to freeze or burn others, or control insects. Things quickly fell apart. The weapon-based gameplay is not as strong as it is in a game like Call of Duty 4, as you must use a combination of powers and bullets to stop the crazed throngs who currently inhabit Rapture. Weapon switching is a little unreliable, and even low-level thugs can present considerable challenge if you're not spot-on with aiming. Luckily, Bioshock gives you ammo in spades--you are never low on it, and there are enough MP boosts to keep your magical powers afresh.
What makes the combat unique in Bioshock is that you have lots of freedom. You don't need to rely exclusively on your gun and powers. You can "hack" a medical station to deliver poison to those seeking aid, for example. Damage an opponent enough and he may run to a nearby medical station only to be gassed to death. Set a baddie on fire, then watch him run for a big puddle (Rapture is leaking) to put out the flames. Switch to your electricity power and zap the water, conveniently stopping the thug as well. Once you discover the research camera, you can take pictures of enemies to discover their weak points. Every battle is one of choices: You can take the easy way out and just run-and-gun, or use the environment to your advantage. It's nice to see that kind of player choice in an FPS game.
On the other hand, much of the player choice is governed by the "hacking" minigame. Virtually every mechanical device in Rapture can be hacked, and usually must be if you're going to survive long. The minigame is exceedingly simple--switch pipe pieces around until you get one continuous pipe from point A to point B--but the sheer volume of hacking is problematic. You can hack vending machines, ammo machines, health stations, droids, and a few other things. It seems like every room in the game has at least one hackable thing in it. The rewards for successful hacks are great, and the player is encouraged to hack everything he or she sees, but it does get old.
However, the game's art direction, plotline, and sheer volume of available powers (if you choose to use them) are reason enough to check it out. I think I'm nearing the end of the game, and I love it despite the constant hacking. The PS3 version (just released) already has DLC not included on the 360 consisting of "challenge rooms" for players who are just that good. Give it a shot!