Tomb Raider, Gears Judgment, and Bioshock Hit All The Right Spots At Xbox Canada’s Spring Preview

What kind of game experience are you after?  I had a chance to attend Xbox Canada’s Spring Gaming preview and had three radically different experiences from games everyone has been anticipating.  Each offered a different experience: Epic Games’ Gears of War: Judgment will make your controller groan as you clench it tighter and tighter; Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider pulls no punches as it hammers you in the gut; and finally, Irrational Games’ Bioshock Infinite is a feast for your eyes, with visuals which will blow your socks off.

To start, I’ll admit I haven’t really played any of the previous Gears games. I was going into the new prequel with fresh eyes and in short, Gears of War: Judgment is an adrenaline-filled roller-coaster that just doesn’t quit.

From what was explained to me from avid Gears followers, not a lot has changed in gameplay but what has been altered or added has been done to keep you actively engaged with the game.  The opening reveals Lt. Damon Baird, the leader of Kilo Squad, who has clearly set some kind of record getting promoted to being a war-criminal in less than a week.  He and his three companions are put on trial and the campaign plays through all of their experiences during the immediate aftermath of Emergence Day, when the Locust swarm had invaded.

Gunplay remains the same, with a slew of weapons at your disposal.  There are iterations on guns that slightly alter some characteristics, such as the Lancer with its iconic attached chainsaw, or an Old School Lancer with a bayonet instead for stabbing foes.  Combat itself remains bloody, tense and chaotic.

But let’s say you’re well practiced at Gears of War (unlike me).  You’re in luck — a new feature, the Declassify system, allows you to take on challenges during the campaign to hear more of Kilo Squad’s story.  The trade-off are harder enemies, reduced visibility, a limited selection of weapons or whatever the current challenge might be.  I never saw repeats of challenges, and each one seems to offer new experiences for a hardened vet or someone on a second playthrough.

Regardless of your skill, this prequel will offer you a tense experience with very little down-time.  Hopefully you’ll get to experience the dark and gritty graphics as a city gets torn down around you, but you’ll need to do so while moving.  Although there are cinematics, they are short and infrequent as most of the game’s story is told through voiceovers during gameplay.

Tomb Raider’s story is intense as well, but in a completely different way.  Where Gears offers your hands a great experience, this game hits another body part entirely.  Because of personal taste, this game had to be placed at the bottom of my list, and not because it was a lesser experience—quite the opposite, in fact.  Simply put, Crystal Dynamics had created quite possibly the rawest and most visceral gaming experience I’ve ever had.  Playing this game was like getting punched in the stomach, repeatedly.

Gone is the silent protagonist from the first games or the tough and strong heroine from recent ones.  Lara Croft has been reimagined as a green archaeologist, searching for a lost kingdom near Japan.  Following her suggestion, her crew and she go searching through stormy seas and the inevitable happens; the boat is destroyed and the team is shipwrecked, but at least they do find an island that is filled with the ruins they were searching for.  Lara’s luck goes from bad to worse, and I want to try and paint as accurate a picture as I can of my experience with the opening section of Tomb Raider.

She is knocked out by an unseen foe from behind before she can finish gasping for air on the beach, dragged into a cave with occult imagery painted on the walls and bound upside down, left to die.  You now take control of our main character and need to swing her back and forth, hoping to get free.  Knocking over a lantern, which ignites your restraints, our heroine screams in pain as the flame burns both the rope and her.  She finally gets free, falls to the ground and onto an awaiting spike that she needs to yank free with a scream and a nice screen effect that mimics her almost going into shock, but not quite.

The demo was so full of these moments, it would have become humorous if each injury and encounter wasn’t so gripping.  Even the simplest of encounters can be nerve wracking.  During a section where you need to move through a tunnel that’s filled with neck high water, the camera zooms in on the protagonist’s face and the sound of her gasping for precious air made me worry for a game character in a way I haven’t in a long time.

From a gameplay standpoint, Tomb Raider runs an impressive gamut.  Puzzle sections require you to manipulate your environment in order to progress.  Hunting occurs in larger areas where you need to stalk rabbits or deer, while being wary of predatory wolves.  These sections are by no means open-world, but contrasting them to the tight and claustrophobic spaces in tombs makes it feel huge.  There are also enemies to fight, which can be done with guns or a bow and arrow for a silent take-down.  Each of these seems to segment the game into sections.  During the demo, you’re navigating ruins, stalking prey or fighting baddies.

Depending on how you perform and what you pick up on the way, you’ll gain experience points and salvageable items to upgrade your skills and equipment respectively.  It’s here where I believe Tomb Raider will thrive; not because the upgrade system is anything new, but rather how it so closely ties into the story.

Hopefully I’ve made clear how Lara is barely capable of survival during the beginning of the game.  Every fall, every hit and every slip made it painfully clear that in order to survive our heroine needs to – and probably will – get stronger.  Here’s a great example: the first time you need to fight off some human enemies, Lara’s first kill is made into an event.  You agonize right along with her as the gravity of what she’s done hits her, but you also have to control her so you can get past the rest of a hostile platoon.  By the end, she speaks to one of her crewmates over a radio, saying that “Killing wasn’t just hard; it was also far too easy.”  Her struggle at the beginning of the game makes me eager to see how much she’ll have grown by the end.

After sweaty palms and a heavy feeling in your gut, is it even possible for Bioshock Infinite to compete?  It’s been delayed time and time again, but I am oh so happy to report that this game is an absolute gem and a feast for your eyes.

The game opens with you getting rowed to a lighthouse on a tiny boat in grey and rainy weather.  Your two nameless companions will quickly leave, but not before engaging in some surprisingly funny banter.  After solving a quick puzzle, you are shot into the air and get your first glimpse of Colombia, the floating city.

My jaw dropped when I saw the vista.  It then went even further and smashed into the ground when my drop ship landed in a temple filled with beautiful music, flower petals floating on water and soft light wafting in from stained glass windows.   Throughout the entire demo, every little nook and cranny was unique and utterly different from any other part of the map.  I never saw a section that felt reused or copied; it was a constant barrage of fresh and new environments.

Now while a big part of the beginning was sunshine and rainbows, Bioshock Infinite doesn’t remain so for long.  As Booker DeWitt, you receive a mysterious mission to find and rescue a young woman named Elizabeth.  After traversing Colombia, as well as interacting with it as the city celebrates a festival, the mood takes an immediate turn from happy, to friendly, to wanting to kill you.

In combat, you have access to guns and Vigors, which allow you to use different abilities such as throwing fire or possessing machines around the city to fight for you.  A new addition to the game is your melee weapon, the Skyhook, which also doubles as a means of travel.  After all, you’re 15,000 feet up in the air, so you can attach yourself to hooks to traverse from one platform to another, or ride an electronic rail to get to another area entirely.

While I would argue the eye-candy is this game’s greatest strength, the story has grabbed my attention just as much.  Colombia has taken to the ‘American Dream’ so much that it has become a religion.  While I admit seeing large marble busts of Washington, Jackson and Franklin made me giggle, the subject matter isn’t there for cheap laughs.  The story is clearly going to be deep and thoughtful, and riddled with the kind of philosophy that made the first Bioshock so appealing to me.

I know I’ve only scratched the surface of these games.  After each demo, I walked away wanting more and knowing, when released, each will deliver (if for entirely different reasons).  Gears of War got my hands shaking with adrenaline, Tomb Raider made me get a drink to sooth my stomach, and Bioshock Infinite had me staring into space after seeing some incredible style.  I hope you know what kind of game experience you want because I can’t pick one body part over another.

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