Wednesday, August 19, 2009

BioShock Review

As a gamer, I primarily like to play boardgames. I like the face-to-face interaction with other people, and I find the gameplay to be fresh and interesting much more often than with videogames. But between games of Amun Re and Crocodile Dentist, I occasionally like to return to the console world on which I was raised. Often I'll play retro games, partly for the nostalgia factor, and partly because there are a lot of old gems; but every once in a while a game will come along which piques my interest... and sometimes it's a game from two years ago which I never got around to playing until my roommate let me use his 360. Enter BioShock.

Now some of you may question the value of a review on a game which everyone has already played, finished, and written extensively about. To that I say: sod off, this is my blog, and I'll review what I like. There will also be mild spoilers, but nothing to get your knickers in a twist about, unless you like that sort of thing.

For the uninitiated (you're welcome, mom), BioShock takes place in a (I hope) fictional underwater city called Rapture which was built in the 40s by a visionary businessman named Andrew Ryan. Ryan ascribes heavily to Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism (even their names sound alike), and the entire game is basically about the hyperbolic consequences of such a philosophy to the point where the last boss is made to resemble an Atlas statue. Personally I want to see it face off against the Lenin statue with the missing buttock.

Now I admire a videogame for tackling ideological concepts which haven't been previously explored much in the medium, but frankly the bad guys end up coming off as cartoonishly evil, and the game kind of seems like it's just condemning the idea of an unregulated market in order to seem sophisticated, rather than presenting multiple facets of a complex issue. Granted most of the inhabitants of Rapture are supposed to have gone batshit insane by the time you show up, but a little less mustache-twirling would have been appreciated.

That aside, the general atmosphere of the game is exquisitely well done, and the opulent art-deco style and early 20th century music meshes excellently with the foreboding horror atmosphere to create a really unique and memorable experience. Sadly the "horror" part sort of wanes once you get used to Rapture since after the first couple of hours you've seen most of what the game has to throw at you, and there's really nothing but the same creepy ambiance to frighten you. That's not necessarily a bad thing; one of my favorite horror games is Eternal Darkness and it's not overly scary... except that one part. The atmosphere for BioShock is unique and well done, but after an unnerving encounter with a mad surgeon about an hour or two in, I found myself wishing for more by way of frightening opponents and setpieces rather than the continual stream of generic mutants who began to remind me of the disgruntled zombie-mutant-vampires from Vincent Price's The Last Man on Earth (in a good way, mind you). The problem is with all the nifty abilities and weapons you can acquire, you start to become much more frightening than anything else you're likely to come across in Rapture.

One of the other things that tamps down the horror-factor a bit is the way death is handled. When you are killed, you immediately respawn in the nearest "Vita-Chamber" at full health with no real consequences except sometimes a bit of a hike. What's more, enemies don't recover any health (everything is as you left it), so you can essentially defeat any foe by continually respawning and beating it with a wrench, assuming you have the patience. Now I can understand peoples' gripe with this mechanic, and it does make the enemies a little less threatening, but how to handle death in this sort of game is always a real challenge, and I much prefer this method to the Mass Effect you-have-to-load-when-you-die-but-we'll-quick-save-for-you except-at-times-when-you-really-need-it-thereby-lulling-you-into-a-false-sense-of-security mechanic, but we'll get into that another time. The way it's handled here isn't perfect but I'm not sure how one would improve it. It's actually rather similar to the death system in another highly admired game, Planescape: Torment.

The story is cleverly presented through in-game radio transmissions and recorded audio-tapes, and the plot is quite interesting and well-constructed. However I didn't feel as emotionally drawn in as I have in some other games such as Mass Effect, and I never really got caught up in the story despite some interesting ideas. Too often it turned into "you need to go through this door to chase after someone, but first would you kindly wander around and collect fifty boxtops." The ending is also far too abrupt: you get a quick 2-minute wrap-up that paints you as either a saint or a monster depending on whether you saved the Little Sisters, and then rather than fading to the credits it just boots you back to the main menu. Imagine if in Star Wars the heroes get presented the medals, and then the movie just stops and the lights in the theatre go on. I feel like I'd have a much more favorable impression of Bioshock's story if it had given me a little more time to savor my victory.

This game also has the same misunderstanding of moral choice as the Fable expansion. In that game, you could be evil and take the evil sword, but if you don't, you instead end up getting the good sword, which is just as powerful. In BioShock, killing mutated children called "Little Sisters" helps you upgrade your abilities, but if you cure them instead, they reward you by helping you upgrade your abilities. It's not a moral choice if the good choice and the evil choice both benefit you in pretty much the same way! It seems the lesson in both of these games is that being selfless sometimes involves mild inconvenience. This is a stupid way of handling moral choice, both dramatically and philosophically.

I also found that the Little Sisters fell right into the "unlikeable" section of the uncanny valley even after you cured them, and the other characters were similarly unsympathetic (though occasionally rather entertaining).

This review might sound fairly negative so far, but I'm really just searching for things to gripe about since in most respects BioShock is an excellent FPS/RPG that is more than worth playing, and technical-wise it's near flawless with enthralling environments, excellent water and particle (and hornet) effects, and a solid framerate on the 360. The battles often play out in very interesting ways due to the wide range of powers you can spec yourself out with, and the game is forgiving enough that you can screw around and try out different strategies. My favorite ability (or "plasmid") is the one that creates a target dummy for enemies to attack, and a ploy I used a couple of times was to hack the security systems and then place one of these dummies in view of the cameras to lure in unsuspecting foes. There are quite a number of possible approaches and combos, and the game encourages you to come up with plans other than the standard "walk in and shoot everybody."

There are also some good memorable moments both emergent and intended. My favorite was after a lengthy sequence where a crazed artist forces you to kill a number of individuals and then take their photos to add to his "masterpiece." When you do fight and kill him with triviality, you can then snap his photo for the Xbox achievement "Irony."

In closing, I thought BioShock was good, and it made me want to play the System Shock games to which it is billed as a "spiritual successor." I didn't enjoy it as much as Mass Effect, though I'm not sure why I'm comparing the two games as they really have fairly little in common. It sure knocks the pants off Crocodile Dentist though.

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