I was skeptical about Bioshock. I remember watching some demo reel that Irrational had put out on the game. While the demo footage panned over a claustrophobic and chronically damp interior setting, the voice of Ken Levine spoke over the film, declaring that in this game they wanted to redefine the shooter, and provide the player with a combination of visceral action and and a deep web of possible tactics. This kind of talk always makes me skeptical.
The critical reaction to Bioshock would also make you skeptical. For the most part the game has been hailed as an instant classic, a brilliant tour de force, a fantastic combination of killer gameplay and compelling narrative. Of course, there are the inevitable nay-sayers who think the game is a crippled version of System Shock 2, dumbed down for the masses. I don’t think either of these extremes is true. But I do think Bioshock is excellent. While the game is not without flaws, none of them diminish my admiration of game’s polish and craftsmanship.
I have already praised the pacing of the beginning of the game. This praise holds up for most of the rest of the game, with a couple of notable exceptions that I will complain about later. The presentation of the narrative was also interesting. I like how the short audio diaries were juxtaposed against the plot arc of the overall game. The diaries and the radio communication do a better job of fleshing out the various characters and their back-stories. They do this while cleverly avoiding the problem of doing believable character animation for extended periods of time, and so you don’t have the problem that you had in Oblivion, where you had to constantly talk to deformed humanoid robots to find out how to find the next plot point. In fact, my main complaint about the presentation of the game is that the character models and animation were particularly weak. In addition, the animation, spoken audio, and subtitles were constantly out of sync.
I have no complaints about the rest of the presentation though. Rapture is as atmospheric a game setting as I have ever witnessed. It is dark, cramped, creepy, claustrophobic and surreal. Vending machines with clown heads play circus music or scream in Spanish as they sell you ammunition. Huge neon signs illuminate the decrepit rotting shell of the city while water streams in from almost everywhere. The areas are great to just stare at, which is a bonus because the game rewards thorough exploration in various ways:
- You have to do a lot of digging to find enough ammo if you tend to just blast away.
- You can reprogram the various security devices in the city (cameras, turrets, and the flying bots) to fight for you rather than against you.
- There are usually inanimate objects lying around that you can use effectively in a fire-fight (water, oil, drums of various kinds).
The integration of the environment into the combat is where I find my true joy in Bioshock. The game pays off handsomely when you can scope out the next area, carefully set a series of traps for the enemies you know are just around the corner and then sit back and relax while the traps trigger and the city does your killing for you. Although much of the pre-release rhetoric harped on the goal of creating a “kick-ass shooter”, I don’t think Bioshock plays that well if you limit yourself to straightforward combat. The game rewards you for taking a more tactical approach to the combat and combining the tools that it gives you in creative ways. This is normally not my thing. I like to figure out how to blast through a game with one or two different weapons. But Bioshock is different. Where in other games stealth and environmental traps are just cheap prefunctory gimmicks, in Bioshock they are actually effective. Where other games only give you a few weapons that are fun, Bioshock gives few dozen abilities and weapons to mix and match. By the later parts of the game, I found that I had actually used three or four different styles of combat to get through, which is rare for me. The strongest compliment that I can give the game is that it made me play outside of my normal style.
I will mostly repeat what peterb said about the narrative. While the plot arc itself is pretty standard stuff, it is for the most part superbly executed. Where the game suffers is in dealing with the standard problem of providing 15 to 20 hours of gameplay in a narrative that can’t support it. The result is that while the story tells you that you must hurry with all your might to the next plot point, the game shuffles you back and forth across the map in a series of seemingly endless collection quests. The fact that the areas are hard to navigate and the map UI is hard to read just means you also spend a lot of time lost. Finally, as you stumble around trying to find your way, what I will call the “ambient” combat constantly gets in your way. It seems like every time you come back to an area there is a new enemy waiting for you. This just slows you down even more. This can lead to a frustrating sense of fatigue. I found myself rushing through levels and missing important items because I became impatient for the plot to move forward.
Happily, a couple of well-produced Big Events serve to pick up your enthusiasm just when you are ready to give up for good. That, and the fact that you can become ludicrously powerful make up for the fact that the the later areas are just not as interesting. In the end, the tedium of collecting N copies of item M wears off quickly, and you are left to ponder the implications of what you have just played through. The fact that the game makes you think about it at all after finishing the final boss is something of an achievement, I think.
Some people have complained that the final boss is prefunctory and boring. I think easy final bosses are a fine thing and should be encouraged. Others have complained about the vita-chambers, claiming that they “break” the game by removing any penalties for player death. This is especially offensive to the “I play games for the challenge” crowd. To this I say that two of the best games ever, Planescape and Lego Star Wars also work this way, and I don’t see what the problem is. I thought that the vita-chambers were a great mulligan. They let me make small screwups without requiring me to go back and replay a whole area. Yes, you can abuse them. But it’s just as easy to not abuse them, so what’s the problem?
Finally, as it turned out, playing on Medium was not too hard. It just took a while to figure out what the game wanted me to be doing, and adapt my style. I even replayed some of the early areas on Hard, and it’s not that bad.
Bioshock is as good a game as I have played since the “Golden Year” of 2004/2005. It gets a huge number of things just right, and does very little wrong. I even like the achievements in this game, and that never happens. I have to go check out that crazy “high school kids blow their heads off with guns to summon spirits” RPG now, but I’m pretty sure I’ll make another run through Rapture fairly soon. If nothing else, I have to get that last stupid achievement before Pete does.