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bioshock

I just finished it. Naturally, you all get a review as a result.

I’m going to lead into this with another guy’s content; I agree with a lot of what he has to say. For those of you who don’t want to watch four minutes of amusing video review, his main point is that Bioshock is not just extremely derivative of System Shock 2, it’s essentially the same game repackaged with a new engine. Even the plot twist is the same: your early-game benefactor is just the game’s antagonist in disguise. The only real differences occur when the designers inject Ayn Rand, or remove any elements which might pose a challenge. A good character is defined as much by their limitations as their capabilities; it’s no fun to play a good role playing game with all attributes cheated to the maximum.

Some of the interface choices seemed questionable. I know that this game was simultaneously released on two consoles as well as the PC, and that the input options on a console are limited, and that nobody likes to go through a menu to get to information relevant in-game. I know all that, so I can kind of empathize with their decision to just eliminate all information screens that aren’t strictly required for gameplay. I make suggestions like that, when I’m bored at a meeting and nobody seems to have an actual good idea. However, it’s pretty much always a bad idea to actually follow through. There are certain expectations of games which try to be RPGs. One of these expectations is that it give you an inventory screen. Another is that there is some way to see the current statistics of your character, so that you can properly appreciate how those statistics change over the course of the game. Bioshock completely fails to deliver on either of those expectations.

Combat is reasonable enough. The default difficulty setting is somewhat unchallenging, but that can be changed at any time. Most enemies are too tough to ignore while being easy enough not to be frustrating; it’s a credit to the game that it struck this balance as well as it did. Some of the decisions which led to that balance seem odd, though: if the character can carry nine or ten miscellaneous weapons, which (judging by appearance) weigh an average of 20 or more pounds, why can’t he just ditch a weapon or two in favor of some more ammo for one that’s actually worthwhile? The presence of weapon-upgrade stations encourages players to find a favorite weapon or two and stick with them; it would have been nice if there had been a better inventory-management system so that that could have been a real possibility. SS2 had one, almost a decade ago! Inventory tracking is not new technology. Then again, the fact that you were always short of inventory space was one of the factors that made SS2 challenging, and we’ve already established that challenge wasn’t really something Bioshock’s designers were going for.

Another thing System Shock 2 had was non-enemy actors, who provided a sense of realism by showing that there were other people out there in the same predicament that you were. The technology of the day required that they always be behind unbreachable barriers, but you could at least catch a glimpse or two of them through the course of the game. Half-life 2 has shown that with modern technology, it is very possible to have realistic human characters, even companions, who act believably as you encounter and interact with them in the apocalyptic surroundings. Consequently, it’s a real shame that Bioshock has the exact same non-enemy actors that SS2 did: you can see them behind unbreakable glass, and in cutscenes, but you have no chance to interact with them. It’s the one serious breach in the atmosphere of the game.

One of Bioshock’s selling points is that you can upgrade your character with various plasmids which grant assorted superhuman abilities. Tangentially, in the world of Bioshock, genetic engineering can grant adult subjects the ability to produce magical effects, clockwork turrets can perform vision-based targeting with perfect IFF, and safes can be cracked by playing the tile-swapping fluid flow game successfully. Anyhow, plasmids are purchased with Adam, which is a substance which creepy little girls gather from corpses. You, in turn, acquire Adam by murdering the girls’ guardians, then mugging them as they mourn. You are given two options: you can murder the little girls and get a lot of Adam, or you can heal them from their genetic-engineering-induced creepiness and get half as much. For me, this wasn’t even an option; despite the games I play, I actually prefer to avoid murdering children, so I healed all of them. This limited my options a little, but it wasn’t like I was finding challenge anywhere else in the game. Actually, there’s potentially a third option: neither the little girls nor the guardians attack you, so you could attempt to play through without any upgrades at all. This would be an extreme challenge, but it might be possible.

The main thing that kept me playing Bioshock despite its vast mediocrity on the gameplay front was the story. Bioshock is tremendously atmospheric, and its producers went to some lengths to tell a decent story as well. Despite the artificiality of the means of its telling–I’ve never met a real person who recorded audio diaries obsessively, and just dropped them wherever they were recorded–it comes off fairly well. There are some parts which are frankly weird: about halfway through, the intensely libertarian creator of an underwater city whose ruins the game is set in, who you’ve thought of until that point as the bad guy of the story, reveals to you that you are a genetic experiment and have been programmed to respond to certain action phrases. To him, you represent everything which has gone wrong with his dream of establishing an undersea libertarian paradise. He then commits suicide by ordering you, using an action phrase which forces compliance, to kill him. Despite its oddities, the story is generally well-told and engaging.

It was odd and frustrating, then, when at one point, the game jumps you off the story tracks and takes you through a chapter which has nothing at all to do with anything else. This isn’t even a tangent, it’s a 90 degree angle. Literally, even! You’re approaching a bathysphere (your primary inter-level transportation) when it suddenly sinks out of sight and a door at the end of a short cross-corridor opens; you have to do some stuff to appease an otherwise worthless character, who hadn’t been mentioned at all until that point in the game, before the bathysphere comes back. It’s as though at some point late in development, some executive decided the game needed to be 90 minutes longer, so they just inserted this chapter despite its complete incongruity. The chapter ends with the instigator character giving you a small reward, while standing next to a box labeled “My Treasure”, and telling you that it’s too bad you’ll never get any of the really cool stuff he’s got squirreled away. Naturally, I killed him for delaying my progress through the story, and took his treasure. It wasn’t all that great.

The denouement is tremendously important to the final act of a game. There’s almost always going to be a big boss battle as the final player action, but it’s the few minutes which follow which really set the game in a player’s mind as an experience they enjoyed, or didn’t. Given the number of games with really good endings, they can’t be all that hard to come up with. I was a bit nonplussed, then, when at the end of Bioshock, it showed me leading a platoon of the little girls I had rescued up to the surface, where they could experience the outside world and lead normal lives. This was cast in tones of me as a savior and a good person; it felt odd considering that I had earlier in the game murdered a dude and took his treasure because he delayed me a little, and I had spent the entire game murdering the only friends that the little girls had previously had. The whole thing was incongruous and tangential to the thrust of the rest of the story; it just didn’t feel right. I was interested in whether the city under the sea might be restored, in the future of the character; the game instead ended with a one minute long video clip about the little girls. When the clip ended and it dumped me back at the main menu, I actually clicked the “continue” button, hoping that there might be more game content, or at least a proper ending. Instead, it took me to the final boss battle again.

Overall, Bioshock is an acceptable game. However, it is by no means great. It is incredibly beautiful and atmospheric, but those factors aren’t nearly as important as gameplay. On that front, it just doesn’t compare to titles like Deus Ex, System Shock 2, or No One Lives Forever 2. If you’re looking for a great FPS with RPG elements, I’d suggest that you go to one of those games first.

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