Bioshock PDF Print E-mail
Written by The Rogue Wolf   
Thursday, 03 July 2008 00:30

THE ROGUE WOLF

(finally gets off his tail and)

REVIEWS BIOSHOCK

 

Preface:

 

Once upon a time, game makers had to make do with restrictive engines, limited computing power, and low budgets. Those game makers who wanted to do something original and daring had to innovate- a strange and unusual concept in this day and age- and the folks at Looking Glass Studios had just licensed the Dark Engine, the fickle yet fertile garden from which had sprung forth the first two Thief games. One of the lead designers at LGS opined that a sequel to System Shock should be made.

 

What resulted was one of the most deep, frightening, and downright difficult games to have come down the pipe. System Shock 2 turned the classic FPS experience on its ear and then kicked it in the head for good measure. You were not some nigh-invulnerable messenger of Death who could lay waste to a legion of foes, grab that cache of ammo, lay hands on a medkit or two and skip along on your jolly way; you were just one man- skilled, tough and kitted out with some sweet hardware, but pitted against a seemingly endless horde of relentless and merciless enemies, and relying on an ever-shrinking supply of equipment and supplies to maintain whatever advantage you could. The "Impossible" skill level did everything it could shy of blatant unfairness to live up to its name.

 

And we loved it. The atmosphere was thick enough to cut with a laser saber, and every noise deserved scrutiny. The music and voicework were utterly top-notch and drove along an excellent story. The graphics... well, even back in the day they were a bit "behind the times", and these days they could be most kindly referred to as "quaint" (unless you use such Mods as Rebirth and SHTUP), but they did a very good job regardless, especially in the depiction of darkness (a carryover from the Thief series). The gameplay was harsh, unforgiving, and sometimes seemingly impossible, but with some careful decisions and understanding of what you were up against, progress would be made.

 

Sadly, the demise of Looking Glass Studios and a legal mess regarding the ownership of the franchise left a hoped-for SS3 as unlikely as a cuddle with a faulty protocol droid. It's been a long time gone since those heady days of exploring the Von Braun and the Rickenbacker, and gaming has evolved, seeming to leave behind the brutal gameplay of SS2 for more "casual-friendly" fare. But Irrational Games (now 2K Boston) decided to give us Bioshock, the "spiritual successor" to the System Shock lineage. History has shown us that "revivals" of cherished older games can range from hideous failures (Deus Ex 2: Invisible War) to diamonds in the rough (Thief: Deadly Shadows), so Bioshock does have the deck stacked against it. How does this tale of an undersea dystopia compare to our trials and troubles with an AI named SHODAN?

 

Bioshock Review Screenshot #1

This is why you should always tip your wait staff.

 

20TH CENTURY BLUES

 

Welcome to the 1960s. Your name is Jack. Jack what? Oh, you'll find that out soon enough. What matters right now is that you're the only survivor of an airplane crash in the middle of the Atlantic. As luck would have it, rather than spending days floating on a cushion that smells like beer farts, you've surfaced right next to a single lighthouse, which holds a bathysphere leading to a strange new place called Rapture.

 

Rapture is an entire underwater city- complete with forests, parks and a mall- sprung from the dream of one man, Andrew Ryan, a dyed-in-the-wool ultracapitalist determined to build a world free of the influence of governments, religion, and the welfare state. Unfortunately, that dream is now a nightmare thanks to basic human nature and the actions of one Frank Fontaine, a con-man extraordinare whose aim is to beat Ryan at his own game and steal the city out from under him. While Fontaine was apparently killed by Ryan's hired guns, a mysterious leader named Atlas rose up to lead the lower class in this new class war that the Ryan-Fontane conflict began.

 

This is not a war being fought with just bullets, though. With the help of the utterly unregulated and amoral scientific atmosphere in Rapture, genetic engineering has come up with "tonics" that can completely alter human DNA and turn your average Joe or Jane Speakeasy into a sculptured god or goddess of perfection. The advent of Plasmids, injectable augmentations that allow for superhuman abilities, began a virtual genetic arms race; overuse of Plasmids, Eve- a neurotheraputic gel that fuels Plasmids- and ADAM- malleable stem cells harvested from sea slugs that can be formed into genetic upgrades or Plasmids themselves- drove a significant number of Rapture's population stark raving psychotic. Now these 'Splicers' are almost the only living citizens left in Rapture, engaged in their own war- one for salvage and survival.

 

But wait, there's more. Through one particularly twisted work of science, a number of young girls were turned into slug-infested, brainwashed ADAM collectors, siphoning the precious resource from recent corpses and processing it into a pure form in their very own bodies. These "Little Sisters" are hunted for their ADAM, but the Big Daddies- massive, diving-suit-fitted monstrosities with brutal weaponry- are not at all shy about turning any would-be ADAM harvester into a very nasty smear on the floor. Anything that can go for a little walk outside, under the crushing weight of more than 60 fathoms of water, is not a pushover by any means.

 

Speaking of water, Rapture's greatest adversary is the unthinking, relentless, punishing grip of the sea. The prolonged class war has not done well for the city's structural integrity, and water is leaking in at seemingly every last juncture and joint, threatening to drown everyone without regard to faction or allegiance. Failed seals and caved-in corridors make even simple travel a hazardous venture, let alone retreating from a furious Big Daddy because a stray round tapped him on the shoulder.

 

And so here you are, Jack, trapped undersea in this dystopian capitalist haven, where everything costs something and everyone is out for themselves. Your only guidance is the enigmatic Atlas, and he's got plenty for you to do. Grab a gun, pick a Plasmid, and get to work, would you kindly?

 

Bioshock Review Screenshot #2

Light pollution, six miles under the sea! But it's definitely atmospheric.

 

THE PARTY'S OVER NOW

 

Bioshock has been awaited by fans of the System Shock series for years. Terms such as "emergent gameplay" and "choices with consequences" have been bandied about like colorful balloons, each claim strengthening the hopes of the fanbase. But as we all know, such hype can lead to grave disappointments. So how well does this art-deco steampunk adventure carry the System Shock torch?

 

Hold on there, bucko. You have to read the rest of the review before I tell you that bit. Consider it your penance.

 

Naturally, the first thing we see about the game is graphics. Bioshock is built on the Unreal 3.0 engine, giving it all the nifty stuff like real-time dynamic shadows, per-pixel lighting, so on, so forth- you've likely heard all this palaver before. But as would be expected from a game set under the ocean, the real draw of Bioshock is the water effects... and, to be honest, they are something else. Water drips, flows, and gushes with some rather convincing visual "oomph", and it isn't just for show- after all, water can be a lifesaver (if you're on fire) or a danger (if you're being electrocuted). While the other visual effects aren't much better than what we've already seen from other current-generation games (aside from when you set things on fire, which is a nice touch), its the water effects that really draw you in and make you believe that you're stuck under several thousand feet of H2O.

 

As for the world that these nifty graphical features create for you, it really depends on what you're looking at. The levels themselves are extraordinarily detailed; the entire city is done up in a bizarre mix of late-40s art-deco kitsch and steampunk technology that somehow manages to work together for the most part, though I've yet to understand how a gas-engine-powered rocket launcher based on a tennis-ball shooter is supposed to make sense. The various signs, movies and other imagery are straight out of the early 50s, with neon-lit signs and big arrows pointing to things. Overall the visual theme of the game is solid and consistent for the most part, and it works. Another point of credit- to cut down on loading times, the game loads the level and then streams the textures off of the hard drive as you play. A bit visually jarring at first, but it helps to get you back into the action faster (especially after the sometimes lengthy quicksave/quickload sessions) and doesn't take very long at all.

 

When it comes to what populates this world, though, things take a bit of a downturn. The NPC models are well-animated but look plasticine at close range, and while this is fine for the Big Daddies (who are wearing diving suits complete with multi-windowed diving-bell helmets) its a lot more out-of-place on supposedly upper-crust socialites gone mad. It's most reminiscent of Doom3's characters, only instead of wearing synthetic jumpsuits, most of the people here are clad in fancy "night on the town" clothes that the game makes look like hard plastic. Half-Life 2 has shown us that clothing and hair need not be stiff and shiny.

 

Aurally, the game packs a stronger punch. There's no less than thirty songs from the 40s and 50s that you can hear in the game (usually played over speakers or on phonographs) that help set the "way-back machine" mood, and the ambient game music and sound are excellent- building suspense or ease of mind depending on where you are. Dripping water has never sounded so menacing. Voices are, on a whole, well-done; sound effects are crisp (and sometimes humorous, like the soft whistles of one of the flying sentries) and the noises your weapons make as you fire them are deep and convincing.

 

(Just a side note, here- Bioshock insists on carrying the torch for System Shock 2 by leaving recordings lying around for you to listen to. However, unlike the small datadiscs in SS2, here we're talking about 20-pound dual-reel recorders that are the size of a lunchbox. Who leaves THOSE lying around by a park bench?!)

 

Unfortunately, I ran into a serious problem with Bioshock in the audio department. I found that the game was "losing" sounds when more than a few things at once were happening around me, especially in firefights; gunfire, environmental and enemy sounds would randomly drop out and pop back up, though "important" sounds (incoming radio messages, etc.) were usually kept. It was irritating more than anything else, but it was a barrier between me and the all-important immersion factor.

 

I'll give the controls some credit- while you can tell they were created for a console, they do manage to be rather tight and dependable. Unlike some other games, you're given the opportunity to remap everything; I preferred having the mousewheel swap weapons/Plasmids and the right mouse button swap between the two.

 

Bioshock Review Screenshot #3

Huh? This? Naw, totally not ominous or anything. Not at all.

 

THIS IS A CHANGING WORLD

 

Well, now, let's get down to the two things I love blathering about the most- atmosphere and gameplay. Gameplay first.

 

No sense in mincing words- System Shock 2 was a difficult game. You had to balance learning skills, upgrading your cybernetic rig, maintaining your weapons, researching enemies, conserving ammo and organizing much-needed equipment to deal with who-knew-what that loomed ahead. Can you hold on to that shotgun you can't quite use yet, or will you need the room for a few extra med hypos and antipersonnel rounds? Do you cough up the cyber modules to learn how to use that laser rapier you've found, or spend them on doing better with your pistol? Staying alive on the Von Braun required you to have a plan and think three steps ahead.

 

While Bioshock does allow you a rather stunning amount of customization via Plasmids and ADAM, giving you a selection of up to six each of Plasmids and tonics (for passive benefits) and equipping you with no less than six weapons (and a camera, but we'll get to that later) each with three different types of ammunition, the amount of challenge it serves up to you pales in comparison to its venerable spiritual sibling. There's absolutely no inventory management in Bioshock; you just grab ammunition, medical kits, Eve hypos, etc. until you're full up, and some weapons will allow you to carry comparatively ridiculous amounts of ammunition compared to others (you carry as many rounds of .00 buckshot ammo for the shotgun- 48- as you do for the .38 revolver). Excess Plasmids can be stored in a "gene bank" when acquired, and accessed from any Gene-Bank station. There's very little supply conservation involved here, beyond the old-school Doom kind- shoot smart and pick up what you can, then remember where the excess is. In my first play-through on Hard difficulty, I found myself passing up all manner of ammunition and supplies simply because I had no need of them. Rarely, if ever, did that happen in SS2. Also unlike SS2, by the end of Bioshock I had managed to get almost every available upgrade, Plasmid and tonic.

 

I do have to admit that with all this plentiful ammunition and all these Plasmids to choose from, there is no end to the variety in which you can dispatch your foes. In fact, during a certain section of the game, you are left unable to control your Plasmid selection and end up having one randomly selected for you every couple of minutes- yet each one of these can be used in some creative way to kill or bypass enemies. There is a lot of overlap in your armory- no less than three weapons and one Plasmid set your enemies aflame, for instance- but while it does dampen the difficulty level, it also makes things more fun.

 

Things are made a bit more interesting by the addition of a "research camera" about a third of the way into the game. Snapping pictures of your enemies will give you insight into their weaknesses, much like the research abilities in System Shock 2; catching photos of them in combat, or of multiple subjects at once, gives you bonuses to that research, while getting pictures of a dead or "converted" enemy or one you've photographed before reduces the usefulness. There are, of course, tonics to improve this as well, and reaching certain plateaus in research (there are five for each type of enemy, whether living or mechanical) awards damage bonuses and Plasmids. It's a bit of a gimmick, but a much more interesting one than simply prying a body part out of an enemy and applying some Strontium to it. Plus it's just flat-out fun to get two Big Daddies going at each other and photographing the altercation.

 

Atmosphere? Bioshock has it in spades. You will seldom if ever find yourself in a place where nothing is going on- you'll hear the groan of thick metal buckling under pressure, water dripping on a wooden floor, or a Little Sister singing to herself as a Big Daddy thuds along behind, and you'll see pools of ocean water ripple under a light, thick mists roiling over the ground, and flickering lights casting shadows on the walls. Everything- sound, music, voices- meshes together very well, and I can't fault 2K Boston's work on this front. Much like SS2, there are recordings left around for the player to listen to, that help fill out the backstory and give some of the characters more depth.

 

(One minor niggle on this trend, though- what are the odds that all these recordings are just left lying around for you to find? Who carries audio diaries with them? The only game that ever got this completely right, in my opinion, was F.E.A.R. I'm far more inclined to believe that people fleeing an invasion of armed super-soldiers simply didn't get around to answering their voicemail.)

 

There are a few startles to be had as well, particularly when you get to Olympus Heights and find out where the real psychopaths have been cut loose to play. Those statues in the restroom, and then the wide half-submerged storage room... heh, yeah, I jumped. And true to its attempts to mimic System Shock 2, Bioshock has a plot twist right around the middle regarding who's been pulling your strings so far. I wouldn't rate it quite near finding Dr. Polito; most of it I puzzled out well before I got there, but... well. Let's just say I'm not going to look at golf clubs the same way for a while now.

 

"Would you kindly", indeed.

 

Bioshock Review Screenshot #4

Also not ominous at the least. I can handle this. Sure. ...mommy?

 

PLEASE BE KIND

 

So how do I really feel about Bioshock? Does it live up to the promise it made- a spiritual successor to System Shock 2? Well, that depends on what angle you wish to view it from. If you want instances of emergent gameplay, having to think on your feet and react quickly to developing situations, using what's available to you in ways you might not have thought of before- then yes, it does a fair job of that, though by different means; rather than confront you with difficult obstacles and make you improvise using a limited number of tools, Bioshock prefers to throw a variety of situations in your path and give you a lot of liberty to respond how you wish. It's different, yes, but equally valid.

 

But if you want the highly-customizable gameplay SS2 offered, or the pulse-quickening dread of pumping your last round into the second of three very angry genetic wrecks, or the deep consideration of just what equipment you can manage to carry through that next level change... you're going to be vastly disappointed. Bioshock has almost none of the "RPG" elements System Shock 2 sported. Upgrades are practically handed to you in most cases, and it is not hard at all to acquire enough so that you never have to face an enemy with a weapon you hadn't planned on using against it. In all but the most intense firefights, ammunition stores seldom dwindle, and the vast amount of Plasmids you'll eventually have access to mean that, unless you're a complete dunderhead who can't make a proper loadout choice for anything, you'll have more than all the tools you need for any situation. It's System Shock 2 with the guts torn out, made more complex and beautiful but with the difficulty curve flattened by a steamroller.

 

Still, I'm not sorry to have bought it (on sale, through Steam, for $20) even if there isn't likely to be a Mod community for it. It's as much an experience as it is a game, and there's enough story, secrets and hidden goodies to make a second or even third playthrough worthwhile, which is more than I can say for some other games *cough GEARS OF WAR cough* It's not the "unofficial System Shock 3" some may have claimed it to be, but it is enjoyable nonetheless.

 

WORLD WEARY

 

And here's where we make with the numbers, kid.

Graphics: 7.0 / 10

Sound: 8.5 /10

Gameplay: 6.0 /10

FINAL SCORE: 8.25 / 10

 

Why 8.25? That's my decision. I wanted the rough-and-tumble, fear-for-your-life gameplay that a game with "Shock" in the title should deliver, and Bioshock did not deliver upon that; where I expected quartz, I got marshmallow. However, as taken on its own, it is an enjoyable twice-and-done game, far better than some others (like Road to Fiddler's Green) and perhaps worthy of the two sequels already being planned out for it.

 

Bioshock Review Screenshot #5

PRETENTIOUS (adj): vulgarly showy; ostentatious, like having a stuffed polar bear in your apartment
 

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