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Sunk by Games for Windows Live

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I had a copy of the BioShock 2 Collector’s Edition nestled in my office closet for an indeterminate amount of time after finally acquiring it cheap off Amazon in the wake of a relatively underwhelming, in comparison to the first title’s, release. Having not so much as played it on my Xbox, I felt it was a waste and moved to trade the case and disc away via /r/gameswap on Reddit, hoping someone else would enjoy it as I struggled to make time to put a dent in my backlog. I didn’t regret doing so, but still made the effort to acquire it via Steam at a cheap price amidst one of Valve’s many ridiculously tempting sales. While I was happy to have it in my PC library as a digital entry, I’d soon be reintroduced to the nightmare of Games for Windows Live.

For those who haven’t experienced this, Games for Windows Live is Microsoft’s garishly grotesque offering that is meant to offer the same interface on PC that Xbox Live users don’t struggle with on the Xbox 360 equivalent. Theoretically, it should be a seamless transition allowing Xbox Live users to straddle the line between their computers and consoles while acting as a roughly rudimentary form of DRM. The problem is, it’s more obtrusive than a Soviet guardhouse in East Berlin, circa 1960.

Finding myself free of obligations for three or so hours one evening following a long day at the office, I decided I would finally get around to playing BioShock 2. At least that was my original intent when installing it via Steam. After the install button changed to play, I quickly clicked, excited to pick up against the backdrop of memories I had from the original. Big Daddies, Little Sisters, Andrew Ryan, Atlas, and Tenenbaum fondled my imagination as the logo crawls played before dropping me on the main screen. Then, without so much warning, an albatross popped-up on my screen with hapless indignation.

Games for Windows Live prompted me for installation and subsequent update, required for me to make any progress or save, before initially starting BioShock 2. Capitulating, I allowed it to run, which took roughly an hour of the time I’d set aside to play before instructing me to close and restart the game for GFWL to conclude the process. Upon doing so, I was forced to watch the opening logo crawl again, but that was okay since I was finally going to get to enjoy a bit of Rapture.

Wrong.

I had to login to my Xbox Live account before anything else could happen, because someone at either 2K or Microsoft deemed that this was of the most pivotal importance to BioShock and Gaming in the Free World. So, I accept this small inconvenience and do so, hoping I’ll finally be able to play the game I’ve paid for with my hard earned money. Forget the fact that I got it on sale for a moment, I just want to enjoy my content. Never mind that this redundancy flies in the face of what Valve initially set out to do with Steam. Tapping enter on the keyboard, credentials on-screen, I wait.

GFWL proceeds to notify me that before anything else happens, it’s positively imperative that my Xbox Live profile is downloaded to my machine in its entirety. Apparently, my gamer picture, score and achievements are so significant, so very vital, that to play a new game without them would be tantamount to Link heading off into the wilds of Hyrule sans the signature sword.

It’s dangerous to go alone, take these bloated metrics that mean nothing to you.

Amidst my increasing aggravation, I sit and watch the download progress for roughly ten more minutes as my limited time trickles away before pulling out my PS Vita and playing a level in Medal of Honor, while I wait. As I’m about to start another mission, GFWL concludes the download, telling me that I then need to restart BioShock 2. Again. I’d be lying if I said by now my patience wasn’t being tried.

Rebooting the game, I’m again entreated to the same logo crawl depicted a Little Sister humming to herself as the Alpha Big Daddy walks up, knocking them over and revealing the various 2K studios that have put their time into crafting the game. Having lost about half the time I wanted to invest already this evening in playing, I was almost getting tired of the opening splash screen.

Once more unto the breach, I enter my login for Xbox Live, wait patiently as it begins connecting and then, after a small eternity, stops telling me that Live is Currently Unavailable and to try again later. I’m now being penalized for trying to play a game because Xbox Live can’t be reached. It’s like not being able to use a swing set in my backyard because I can’t call the person who built it first and ask for permission because they’ll be denied the opportunity to tell all the other kids how much fun I’d, at this point only in theory, be having. I try several more times before finally rebooting my computer.

So, Windows loads leading me to start Steam and attempt to play BioShock 2 for another time that evening. Having sunk roughly two-thirds of the time I had hoped to be enjoying a game that night into actually getting it to run in the first place, I was needless to say beyond annoyed. I do enough technical support via my day job as a System Administrator, suffering this indignity to just get something running was becoming infuriating. But I pressed on in hopes that this time, it’d work.

Yet again, the opening crawl and introduction screen with the heavy, ambient orchestral music so signature to Rapture plays as the GFWL prompt appears, begging me to enter my credentials like a starving, drug-addicted hooker looking for a fix. Relenting, I do so and wait, fighting the urge to let loose a torrent of swears as my fiancé works at her desk quietly in our shared office, continuing to be ignorant of my plight. The circle icon illuminates, trying to connect to the Xbox Live service. Before long, it finally does and I let out a sigh, excited that I’ll get to play for at least a few minutes. A gateway to more down the line, confident that it’ll work going forward.

I load the game and am entreated to the introduction detailing the story in 1958 Rapture. Great, I’m thrilled that I’ll finally get to enjoy this now that I’ve slipped past the GFWL gatekeeper that had done such a fantastic job of protecting me from my own enjoyment. Few things are as dangerous as the happiness I’d derive from using a product I bought. Finally being dropped into the diving suit of the Alpha, I begin playing.

The game is beautiful and despite a few misgivings I’ve had, hearing bits and pieces about the plot since the time BioShock 2 had released, I’m just excited it’s actually working. That’s right, I’m satisfied with a product solely because the most nominal amount of performance is being fulfilled. Forget anything beyond the bare minimum, it works so I should be satisfied with that as an end-user. It isn’t before long before my night is sealed faster than a Securis door.

Early on, when encountering Big Sister for the first time, there is a scene where the player enters a large hall as the Alpha. During this sequence, she severs the bolts holding the glass in this sections against the immense pressure of the ocean, causing them to shatter initiating a large tidal wave and submerging the whole section with water. As this sequence started, GFWL crashed BioShock 2 telling me that the login had somehow changed and I’d have to reboot BioShock 2.

It was then that I briefly lost my mind, telling GFWL exactly what it could do with its login.

Subsequently trying to start the game again revealed that my auto save had been corrupted and now there was a fault of some sort that caused it to crash during the 1958 Rapture introduction, rendering any play for that evening impossible. I uninstalled the game and tried reinstalling it, checked the Steam forums for whatever voodoo could be worked and ultimately called it quits. It was then, in that bleak moment, that I remembered an alternative.

I couldn’t have been happier.

Thanks to PlayStation Plus, I’d downloaded BioShock 2 via the PSN when it’d been free several months back. I happily checked online to see if I could download it back to my console without issue and sure enough, I could. I pushed the download via my work computer the next day, started the console as I walked in the house that night and sat down not long after. It was there, waiting for me. I fought to curb a sly smile brought on by the overwhelming happiness of having something simply work. In terms of usability, that places GFWL somewhere between devastatingly poor and downright pathetic.

It’s been said that “the road to hell is paved with the best intentions,” and while it can be seen from the history of what Games for Windows Live tries to do, offering full integration between platforms for its products, it comes off as obtrusive, broken and falls flat on its face. I had heard horror stories of GFWL and moved to avoid it, but a lapse of judgment caused me to buy BioShock 2 in spite of this glaring flaw. Lesson learned. It’s easy to see why people would actively avoid products with the service integrated, because any title doing so is already significantly more struggle than it could possibly be worth.

I’d happily grown back into playing games on a computer since actually owning a machine that can run them and would have truly enjoyed experiencing BioShock 2 there. However, through forced updates, intrusive utilization and ultimately doing little more than running me through a grinder and shoving my time into a black hole from which it’ll never escape, Games for Windows Live destroyed that opportunity. Like a jilted lover standing in the way of two potentially star-crossed soul mates, GFWL turned the whole affair into a murder-suicide, sealing any future personal acceptance of a game using this particular form of torture.

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