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Monday, September 03, 2007

Review: Bioshock

Format: PC
Developer: 2K/Irrational
Publisher: 2K

I'm awash with disappointment. Bioshock is not the exceptional game that I'd been told (and sincerely hoped) it would be. High production values and a no-doubt talented development team have combined to found an exhibit of the most paradoxically ocean-deep yet Serious Sam-shallow soggy mush of storytelling and saline gaming. I summon Sam because Bioshock all too often betrays its simple-shooter essence. The truth is, despite its sprawling cityscape, voice-recorded backstory, and literary-inspiration, Bioshock herds the player along a pre-defined path in a manner akin to a headless kamikaze. Once the basic rules have been defined (hack the cameras, electrify the water, exploit the Daddies), Bioshock is a tiresome and repetitive trawl, although it is trawl through some eye-searing and ear-arousing locales.

Ken Levine - Bioshock's project director -once worked as a screenwriter for Paramount Pictures. I find Mr. Levine fascinating because he opines that a player must retain freedom of control throughout the telling of a game's story, yet I think that Bioshock has failed to bring this premise to fruition. Rapture is introduced through a torrent of set-pieces that revolve like a whirlpool around the player. I think that the first fifteen minutes of Bioshock may be one of choreographed-gaming's greatest achievements. Then, like a hurricane, Bioshock's energy dissipates upon dry land, and tiresome convention sets in. Bioshock's story is largely told through the discovery of superbly voice-acted tape recordings that are scattered like jetsam throughout the city. The recordings serve to permeate ripples from Rapture's past, describing one man's impractical ideology and the dystopian implications of remaining doubtless when reality's tide erodes a ruler's fantasy. One could argue that this system gifts the player with a freedom to continue their game whilst revelling in Rapture's past, yet I felt that the recordings necessitated my standing still in order to avoid triggering combat, or any other such noisy distraction, until the playback ceased. There are a few pipette-drops of genius dispersed within this inverted fish-tank of disembodied storytelling - Brechtian acknowledgments of gaming's similarity with theatre - but they remain sadly infrequent tips to an iceberg that remains largely submerged below the high tide defined by Deus Ex.

Almost every room in Rapture contains a few bad guys and represents an equipment-expending battle. I'm the kind of person who likes to thoroughly explore the games I play, so I felt unduly punished when I found that areas I'd previously cleared of enemies had become re-populated with another happy-go-lucky set of spritely psychopaths. An internal conflict emerged: should I continue to explore this level and risk the loss of my best ammunition or should I continue to the next in the hope that I'll get to appreciate the city's intricacies without suffering through the wasteful chore of combat? There was a solution: play the game like an online shooter and treat the ability to re-spawn upon death as advantageous excuse to skimp on using med-kits. By half way through Bioshock, I'd even grown accustomed to teasing the baddies with telekenetically-thrown scraps of rubbish to the face so that I could be fatally flung as a shortcut to the nearest re-spawn point. When I'd completed the game, I felt as though I'd failed to fully understand Bioshock, yet I'd loathe to live another few hours playing it.

The bloody ballet of Bioshock's combat is renditioned through use of plasmids (think Jedi force powers) and conventional weaponry. Together they fuse to become complimentary methods of mass maiming. An early example of the plasmid and weapon's symbiosis comes in the form of Atlas' 'one-two punch': the sadist's catatonic coupling of the lighting plasmid's stunning shock and the wrench for good old fashioned bludgeoning. I fumbled around in the settings to find the button I should press to lean - to no avail - there isn't one! Merely entering a room is usually enough to alert all of its inhabitants to your presence, signaling the development team's departure from common sense and a welcome to Rapture. Later in the game, two separate tonics (subtle plasmids) negate this problem, imbuing the player with silent footsteps and Predator-style camouflage. Oddly, the player's enemies seem to have their own set of poor-man's plasmids (and, in some cases, no special powers at all) even though their character as 'splicers' hinges on their overuse of super-human augmentation.

If the player wants to save themselves a bit of dosh (and blood), they'll have to learn to plumb. That's because a vital component of Bioshock comes in the form of tubes, which need to be neatly arranged to form a channel so that liquid may flow from one point to another. You see, the organisation of pipes acts as a 'fun' metaphor that represents the hacking of equipment such as turrets and vending machines. I'd previously had a wholly unrealistic and romanticised opinion about the excitement of hacking, but after playing Bioshock I realise that the life of a hacker is simple and brimming with mild stimulations. Hackers are no risk to the US government because their role can be simply outlined using the 'series of tubes' language that senators are able to understand.

Without spoiling anything, I can say that I'd expect to be granted a degree of freedom after a major event that takes place during Bioshock. Perhaps the player's avatar has a chain tattooed on his wrists for a reason: to signify total adherence to each order he will be given during the game. Bioshock's publishers framed their game as an intellectual stimulation, so it's sadly ironic that the only choices to face the player regard violence and occasionally the choice to refrain from killing someone.

Perhaps I've been too harsh on Bioshock. Perhaps it deserves the uproar that it has provoked through its commercial and critical success. I remain firmly unimpressed. I expected so much more. If you've yet to play Bioshock then I recommend you think twice before you make a purchase.


Anonymous said...

I really disagree with your overall perception of the game, but on some issues I can see your point. The way Bioshock is constructed as an experience is very linear so, yes, the player doesnt have many choices to make that can alter the game world. But Bioshocks freedom lies in character development and the way you go about doing things. There were many plasmids and abilities I didnt touch on the first play through, that will open up a whole new way of looking at the game the second time though. The game offers such variety in this way that it can be experienced multiple times without becoming stale, set path or not.

Also you cheated yourself of a great experience by abusing the vita-chamber method. The game is not overly difficult on the medium setting anyways, I cant imagine why you feel like you'd HAVE to go that route. Theres no big shortage of money/ammo/health packs laying around, and that is your reward for doing the adventuring you're talking about. This isnt a survival horror game though it has some of its elements...even if you run out of ammo then you still have the greatest weapon of all to fall back on, your plasmids. All of them are useful, effective ways of dispatching enemies..you dont have to use guns at all if you dont want to, except maybe against big daddies. Plus the wrench is one of the most powerful weapons in the game if you have the right tonics..so wasting ammo is more than an annoyance than a hinderence.

Anyways, I think Bioshock is a great game and what is open ended is the way YOU play it. Obviously, you played it in a way you didnt enjoy. I dont think its fair really to blame the game for that.

Anonymous said...

Also just a couple of quick things to add. In relation to the idea of intentionaly killing yourself to avoid using your med packs. I mean cmon, how can you honestly expect to enjoy a game when you cant excersize a little bit of restraint and refrain from borderline "cheating". If the developers had intended that way of playing I dont see the point of having med packs at all. To me its just a pride thing I suppose, I like to compete so losing to some AI on purpose is probably not something I'd do, and the idea would toataly ruin the game for me. I'd try to win..I'd exhaust all possibilities to come to that end. Something that is not only impossible in Bioshock, but completely unneeded. Considering you walk through the game basicaly as a god and can choose on a whim how you want to kill and your methods are limited only by imagination. Also you dont have to play the hacking minigame through most of the game if you dont want to. Just build auto-hack tools, or buy them. For security camera's and turrets, blow them up, or shock them long enough to get by, use secruity bullseye on your enemies to make them work for you without hacking...etc. This stuff is at your fingertips if you want to use it.

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