We at Geek Buffet appreciate that each of us approaches our geekiness in our own individual way. In our efforts to embrace this diversity of perspective, this represents the first of two posts about the game BioShock. This one is a review of the game from the perspective of a gamer who has played it. The second will be from the perspective of a non-gamer who had the chance to see the game while I was playing through it.
As a gamer, I appreciate being able to read a review of a game that gives me enough information about a game to be able to help me decide if I want to play it or not. At the same time, I don’t want a review to spoil the game for me. I have endeavored to write a review of the kind I would like to read. I hope you’ll agree.
By way of brief introduction, BioShock is a first-person shooter. It starts out when the main character is in a plane crash in the middle of the ocean, and escaping from the wreckage, finds what looks like a lighthouse rising up out of the water. Inside is a submarine, which takes him to Rapture, an underwater city. The nature of Rapture, and the story of what happened to it, are central to the plot of the game.
While I am certainly willing to play mindless games, I appreciate a video game that has a well-written story to tell. In this respect, BioShock shines. As with most games, the plot plays out over the course of the game, with new aspects of the story being revealed as your character progresses through the game. This story feels polished and well laid out, without being too ham-fisted in its presentation of some of the basic moral dilemmas the game has to offer.
Where BioShock really puts itself ahead of the pack, however, is in the parts of the story that aren’t fed directly to you as you advance in the game. There are tape recorders scattered throughout the game which you can find an listen to. None of them are required, and it is entirely possible to play through the entire game without ever bothering to pick any of them up. If you are willing to take the time, though, there is a wealth of additional material to discover. These additional pieces won’t be found in any sort of coherent order, but over the course of the game, they help to fill in some of the aspects of the story that would have been too involved to be neatly dovetailed into the main progression of the plot.
Beyond helping to make the primary plot not bog down with too much information during the spaces between sections of the game, presenting this additional information in this manner means that if you’re the type of gamer who is in it for the storytelling as well as the action, each time you find another tape, you get the enjoyable tickle of the thrill that comes from feeling like you’ve uncovered another hidden piece of the larger storytelling tapestry. On the reverse side of this bright, shiny coin, unfortunately, is the dirtier reality that sometimes finding those tapes is difficult, and if you’re not willing to spend a lot of time in the game hunting down each and every one of them, you will end up missing some of the detail, and might be left feeling like you didn’t get as much out of the game as you might otherwise. Worse, unless you are willing to find a guide online, there is no way of even knowing if you’ve missed any. For those of you interested in such a guide, this one is a good bet, though it also contains the full text of each of the tapes at the end of the list. Be warned! The reading of the text script of the tapes, in addition to being exactly like cheating, will rob you of the very real enjoyment to be gained by listening to them in the game.
The story in BioShock is also appealing in that it works on multiple levels. There is the overarching story of Rapture and the search to discover what happened to it. Within that framework, there are several key figures, and the personalities and ideologies that drove both the creation and the destruction of Rapture. Winding through all of this is the more basic questions about the identity of the main character. He is nameless, and given that your perspective is always through his eyes, looking outward, faceless as well. The question of “who am I?” enriches the experience, and the lack of concrete knowledge about the main character’s origins, motivations, and history mean that you, as the player, are able to mold your character into the sort of person you think he should be. This ability to forge your own identity in the world is enjoyable to experience, as well as effective at building a connection between you, the player and you, the character.
A well-written story does a lot to drive my enjoyment of the game, but as with anything else, there is no getting away from the fundamentals. No matter how masterfully crafted the plot, a game simply isn’t fun to play unless the core mechanic is appealing. BioShock is a first-person shooter. Like any game in the genre, you spend most of your time looking down the barrel of one weapon or another as you move through the game world, and most of your problems can be solved by shooting them until they fall down and stop moving.
As a shooter, BioShock is a pretty good game. Playing it on the X-Box 360 (it’s also available for the PC), I found the controls to be forgiving enough to be easy to use, but still gave me the feeling that I had reasonably precise control over my character’s actions. The interface does a good job of putting the important information about what weapon you’re carrying, how much ammunition you have for it, and the current state of your health and other resources in front of you, without cluttering up the screen too badly. In short, the game was polite enough to get all of the technical aspects out of the way and let you just play, which is a lesson other game-makers would do well to study.
Of course, if every game were exactly the same, there would be no reason to play more than one. Like any game of its type, BioShock has a gimmick to set it apart from other games in the same genre. In particular, in addition to providing you with firearms and explosives, BioShock allows you to “genetically modify your DNA to create an even more deadly weapon: you.” The short version is that there are special injections you can find scattered throughout the game that effectively give you super powers. You can shoot lightning or fire from your hands, launch swarms of killer bees at your enemies from hives in your arms, use telekinesis to pick up and move objects (or even catch grenades and throw them back at your enemies), and generally raise havoc like something out of an X-Men comic.
To be honest, although this was intended to be the whole point of the game, this aspect of it didn’t really do anything for me. Sure, it’s interesting to be able to shoot a fireball from my hand, but if I also have a flame-thrower in my inventory (and by the end of the game, you will), I really just have two ways to shoot fire, and the only real difference between them is that the fire behaves in slightly different ways and depletes a different ammunition supply. Many of these abilities, called “plasmids” in the game, are useful, but they ended up feeling more like a gimmick than a natural and integral part of the game.
Plasmids allow you to actively manipulate your environment, and in doing so you deplete your supply of EVE, which is just another resource for you to manage. It works the same way as the “manna” or “magic points” that would power your special abilities in a different game. You can find more of it scattered around, and it ends up being just another ammunition type, from my perspective.
In addition to plasmids, the game also has “gene tonics,” which are more or less the same thing, but which offer passive, rather than active abilities. Tonics might make you better able to use a med-kit, healing you more when you use one, or make you more resistant to damage. While these abilities are very useful, the idea that they are because of some kind of genetic modification which makes your skin resistant to bullets is entirely besides the point. It could just as easily be an armored vest, which would have exactly the same effect without forcing anybody to explain how 1950s retro-science managed to pack superhuman genetic modification into an oversize syringe you buy at vending machines located in most public areas of your hometown. This, once again, ends up feeling more like a gimmick than a natural fit.
What all of this use of EVE, and its counterpart ADAM, which is used to buy the abilities in the first place, ends up doing is to set the stage for the basic choice of the game. You can get ADAM from “little sisters,” who are effectively slightly creepy little girls who gather it from dead bodies in the game. If you fight and kill the “big daddies” who protect them, you can take the ADAM from the little sisters. Big daddies are large and scary, tough to kill, and able to dish out a lot of damage. This makes them the toughest enemies in the game, which is reasonable, given that they protect the most limited resource.
Having killed a big daddy, you are left with a choice. You can “harvest” the little sister, producing a lot of ADAM but killing her in the process. Alternatively, you can “rescue” the little sister, generating half as much badly-needed ADAM but freeing her from the parasite that allows her to harvest it in the first place, and restoring her to a normal little girl. The game tries to set up a situation in which the obviously profitable choice is morally reprehensible, and then leaving the player to balance their own needs against the desire to make the right choice. The problem, in BioShock like in so many other games, is that it’s a false choice.
The game designers didn’t want to leave players who consistently make the “good guy” choice out in the cold. As a result, as a reward for saving little sisters, one of the characters in the game will give you a package of goodies once in a while. Each of these include a small quantity of ADAM, making up part of the difference between the amount you would have gotten by killing the little sisters and the lesser quantity you got for saving them, as well as some plasmids and gene tonics. The trouble is that this means that saving the little sisters forces you to accept less of a valuable resource, but in return, you are granted access to resources for which there is no other source. As such, the most selfish player, interested only in making themselves more powerful no matter what the cost, will make exactly the same choice as the genuine “good guy,” because saving little sisters is both the “right” choice and the path to power.
I am frequently annoyed by this tendency in games. If the idea is to put me in a situation in which I am forced to choose between profit and morality, make sure you design your game in such a way that the choice is a real one. Instead, BioShock puts profit and morality on the same side of the equation, meaning the only reason I’d make the other choice was that I was amused by doing evil for its own sake. This isn’t a difficult choice as much as it is a condescending gesture in the direction of difficult choices.
Being a next-generation game, BioShock faces a high bar in terms of visual presentation, and it clears it with ease. The game is visually beautiful. It delivers a well-wrought graphics engine which produces fantastic lighting and water effects. Given that the entire game is set in a dark, underwater city, this is exactly what the doctor ordered.
In addition, the game has a well-developed sense of style. The retro, art deco style is carried throughout the game. It even does a good job of presenting an obvious difference between the high-rent neighborhoods of Rapture and the more workaday districts while leaving a solid feeling of the overall design aesthetic in both. Simply put, the game looks well designed and expertly polished.
Some other reviewers have complained that there is no real penalty for dying in BioShock. If you are killed, you will be revived in a nearby machine, with all of your weapons, plasmids, tonics, and other inventory intact, and at least some of your health and EVE restored. This makes the game feel easier than it might otherwise, but I actually like this mechanic. It’s not really any different from the more normal system in which gamers just compulsively save before each encounter and reload their game when things go wrong. At least this way, there is some kind of semi-rational explanation for how the player manages to always bounce back no matter what happens, and in the infrequent events in which I did die while playing through, it spared me having to deal with a load-game menu, and allowed me to just pick up where I left off.
At least, those events were infrequent on the “normal” difficulty level. On the “easy” setting, the game is nearly an insult to an experienced player. This is a good thing, because it makes it accessible to those who struggle with the two-joystick control scheme that playing on the X-Box forces you to use, and which is difficult for some people to get used to. On the most difficult setting, your enemies are tough and deadly, which can be either an enjoyable challenge or a terrible frustration, depending on your level of skill.
Quibbles with weak moral challenges aside, the game was highly enjoyable to play. I found it to be well worth what I paid for it. Or, at least, no more outrageously overpriced than any next-generation video game is these days, with more to offer in return for the sixty dollar price tag than most other games I could have gotten instead. If shooters are your thing, BioShock is worth a play.
-posted by Mark