Apologies for the hiatus but now I must break my silence. I just completed Bioshock. “Well done but do keep up”, I’m sure you are all saying and it was kind of great – kind of.
Just in case you’ve been trapped in a deep underwater dystopian social experiment for the last year, the game is set in a deep underwater experiment to create the perfect society, which soon devloves into a hellish dystopia as a consequence of the discovery of a drug-like mutagen. You begin the game crash landing near the entrance to this underwater world and as the game progresses you are drip fed snippets of information that fill you in on what went on there. The back story centres on one man’s (Andrew Ryan’s) dream to create a prefect city state where everything will be perfectly governed by everyone’s fully self-realised rational self interest. A veritable Ayn Rand-ian, objectivist paradise. See! Andrew Ryan – Ayn Rand: do you see what they did there? Ho, ho. My sides are splitting, that must have been a hilariously smug script writers meeting that day. At some point they discover a sea slug which allows you to alter your DNA and give yourself fantastical super powers, the only catch is that once you use it the more addicted to it you get. The place soon devolves into utter chaos and the “perfect” society falls to pieces with Ryan on one side trying to maintain control and a criminal overlord, Fontaine, on the other. At the start of the game you arrive and get caught up in helping a chap save his family, which fails, and then eventually trying to help said chap assassinate Ryan. The plot is interesting and fairly adult and the voice acting is excellent, both of which really push the bar on what what games can achieve as art. So saying, it’s a shame the twist in the plot about two thirds of the way through is pretty obvious by the time you get there and the anti-objectivism, anti-laisse faire capitalism polemic that the game represents does get a little heavy handed. Or perhaps it’s an over long anti-drug parable – “Don’t do slugs kids”. But even given those minor niggles you’d be hard pressed to find a game whose plotting, staging and world are as well realised and engrossing.
Which brings us on to the game. For the most part it’s a pretty standard FPS fair with an unhealthy dose of Pipemania included. You get the usual range of FPS weapons, a crowbar/wrench, pistol, shotgun, machine gun, grenades etc… Not a great deal to write home about and not half as imaginative as the story. Is there some kind of law that requires all FPS games to include a crowbar/wrench? I appreciate that the crowbar is an iconic part of Half-life, but enough is enough. Just because Valve have done it doesn’t mean everyone else has to but I am looking forward to portal guns in Bioshock 2.
The psychic/psionic powers, called “plasmids” by the game, on the other hand are pretty cool and well realised but for me they went largely unused, a couple of them have specific indispensable uses (stopping gun turrets and cameras so you can “hack” them) but the rest just seemed like window dressing. Switching between the weapons and the plasmid powers was a little over fiddly, especially in the heat of the battle, so I had a tendency to just lay into things with the guns, rather than do clever stuff with the plasmid powers. Also there was no pressing need to explore the range of them in the game, so over all I found I didn’t, which struck me as a shame. Also the plasmids constitute almost all of the much touted RPG element of the game. If being able to select which powers you have available constitutes an RPG these days then I feel we’re stretching the concept of RPG until it’s a very, very long and stretchy thing indeed.
Which bring me to the “hacking”, throughout the game there are things to hack, automated gun turrets, security cameras and money safes mostly, and the hacking consists of a mini-game based on Pipemania. Once you’ve hacked something, then they’ll attack your enemies rather than you, hurrah! Now, Pipemania is a good puzzle game but you spend an inordinate amount of time playing it in Bioshock. I suppose you don’t have to do all the hacking but it does make large areas of the game easier and you’d be a fool not too. Don’t get me wrong, I like Pipemania but I’m not entirely sure I paid hard earned modern day cash to play a 20 year old puzzle game. I can’t help feeling that a different puzzle based mini-game for each class of hackable object would have been better. For instance, last time I looked safes use mechanical locks and not water to keep them shut, so a puzzle like Klotski might have been more appropriate. In real terms that is a minor gripe but then again you do end up playing a lot of Pipemania and I kind of thought I was done playing Pipemania about 15 years ago.
The graphic, visual and level design for the game are impressive to say the least and alongside the story and sound design they act to make the world fully realised and fully engrossing. The water, lighting and particle/smoke effects are especially impressive and I stopped just to stare at several points in the game. They are great and they bode well for the future of immersive computer games and interactive story telling. If I have any criticism it’s that the visual design can get a little much after a while. A lot of the game is dark and shadowy with pools of light illuminating small areas. This works well to heighten the tension and suspense when you can’t really see what’s going on but often the pools of light are illuminated by bright neon colours and the effect of all the bright garish colours, contrasted against the dark can get a little wearing after a while.
The gameplay is pretty standard FPS stuff, although a little more sluggish feeling than the likes of Half-life or Timesplitters and that goes for both the PC and xbox360 versions. This isn’t really an issue as there’s nothing in the game that requires super fast reactions or accuracy. The combat also lacks the clean precession that you find in the likes of Half-Life 2 or Team Fortress 2 but that might just be whinging about things I’m not used to, nevertheless it does feel very different to what you might be used to especially if you’re used to playing FPSes on PC rather than console platforms. Overall the game is very easy even on the hardest setting and this is compounded by the lack of penalty for dying, you just get sent back to a restart point. If you were in the middle of a hard fight you can just go and rejoin it where you left it but your oponents now have much less health. Once you realise this it totally removes all the tension from any of the harder fights, which I’d say spoils the game a fair bit by removing much of the suspense and claustrophobic anxiety. It also means that there’s no incentive to learn to play the game well or use your weapons or plasmid powers intelligently. You might as well just set about everything in the game with the wrench and be done with it. This could be solved by recharging the health of your opponents if you die and if I were in charge I wouldn’t let you save if there are aggro‘d mobs about, just to make life a bit more difficult.
Anyway, moving on, for all my griping in the last couple of paragraphs the game is actually great and something that should be experienced by anyone who cares about computer games and who cares about them as a maturing form of art. It’s engrossing and intelligent but you could argue that it’s let down by the binary nature of the morality that it portrays. For me that isn’t such an issue and if anything it is merely an indication that games aren’t yet mature story telling vehicles but if you want to see where that process of maturation starts then you don’t really have to look much further than Bioshock. All in all I look forward to Bioshock 2 but given the “good” ending for this one I can’t help but feel that it’s going to be some kind of Sims like dating and marriage simulator.