Posted at 14:50 on 5th January 2008 - permalink

Another of the highlights of 2007 that I’ve only just gotten around to playing is Irrational’s Bioshock, a game that has already been ludicrously hyped, critically feted, endlessly discussed, lashed back against and had its backlash lashed back at.

As a game, Bioshock isn’t as good as the best games-of-vaguely-comparable-genre out there (e.g. Deus Ex, the Metroid Prime trilogy – I’ll admit I’ve only ever dabbled with System Shock I and II). As a story, it was probably as good as anything that’s been done in the medium so far, although one that strained awkwardly to stretch a few brilliant high-concept narrative ideas across a standard length PC game.

I think that the astronomically high review scores that the game received can be put down to a mixture of outdated expectations (it shouldn’t be a surprise for a game of this type to have as good or better presentation than Oblivion and Gears of War, at this point), a lack of directly comparable games in recent memory (and a long drought of genuinely creatively interesting games, which affected the PC and 360 worse than most), and a widespread unconscious urge for there to be a ‘landmark’ title to decisively announce that the ‘next generation’ had arrived. In short, it was the right game at the right time. Which isn’t to say that it’s undeserving of praise, but by my reckoning it’s a solid 8/10 rather than the 10/10 that a lot of places gave it.

Bioshock’s setting and central set of characters and concepts are genuinely compelling and original. Rapture is a suitably awe-inspiring monument to Andrew Ryan’s will, and the macabre ecosystem that has developed in the ruins provides fertile ground for many evocative moments and scenes. Everything is bent to the purpose of generating the maximum amount of immersion and ‘ooky-ness’.

Even the more clich├ęd elements it draws on are given a little twist to make them seem fresh again (the spooky little girls aren’t just dumbly aping Asian horror iconography; the dark, claustrophobic, corridor-based world dodges criticism by having water outside the indestructible windows instead of a Martian landscape). And as the gushing reviews have pointed out, the art style is phenomenal (although I still think that the decision to make everyone – Splicer or not – look like badly melted ventriloquist dummies lets the side down a bit). The rendition of water is the best yet seen in a game, taking the crown from Super Mario Sunshine.

Unfortunately the effort put into selling this unfamiliar imaginative premise seems to have limited the amount of resources left to populate Rapture with fleshed-out characters. There is little in the game that isn’t linked directly into the main plot (the rare exceptions often being among the most affecting parts of the game, perplexingly). Many of the environments do not feel like they have been lived in or served a functional purpose. Unlike Deus Ex and it’s lineage, Bioshock often seems to think that showing without telling is enough to suspend disbelief. The decision to have virtually no text in the game that isn’t presented as audio logs exacerbates the problem.

Holes in the logic of the game world are waved away with ‘funny’ audio logs a few too many times for comfort as well.

On the macro level, the fact that the game leaves so many issues unanswered and open for interpretation works in it’s favour, in the mode of Half-Life, Lost and Twin Peaks.

The Big Moral Choice underpinning the story is nicely done, and presumably only came as a letdown to people expecting some kind of Molyneux-esque implementation of morality as a game system. (I didn’t harvest – by a strange quirk of fate, I was hacking up defenceless kids in Ultima VIII when news of the Dunblane massacre broke on the radio, which took the fun out of virtual child murder for me.)

Because the story is so obviously the point of Bioshock, a lot of reviews seem to have glossed over how (and how well) the game mechanic works.

In a nutshell it works like this: the player traverses a series of large levels (‘decks’), each of which is a free-roaming area where several objectives need to be completed to progress. Instead of scripted combat scenarios, puzzles, bosses, exploration, etc., most of the game’s action is based around random spawns of generic enemies (Splicers) whose health and abilities are ratcheted up as the game draws on, and the odd security turret. The game sporadically respawns some enemies into previously visited areas to keep you on your toes (although never in overwhelming numbers).

There are also a few Big Daddy/Little Sister duos wandering each level. Big Daddies don’t attack unless provoked, and can be optionally engaged so that the player can get to the Little Sisters (who give you the resource to buy new plasmids a.k.a. force powers). It’s possible to coerce any of these actors to attack the others. With a few plot-driven exceptions, it’s not necessary for the player to kill everything they encounter.

This system works, and is quite well balanced for most of the game. However it just works. It doesn’t produce moments of exciting emergent gameplay like your Halos and Grand Theft Autos. There aren’t multiple ways to approach situations as there are in Deus Ex or Resident Evil 4, or rather, the different approaches you can take tend to blur into an indistinct mass, delivered in the same way and resulting in the same outcome.

Few reviews have mentioned how pared down the game’s environments are. It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that Bioshock is the flattest game world since Wolfenstein 3D. The game’s maps illustrate this well – all easily represented in 2D and chock full of right angles, as if Rapture has been designed for a pen and paper RPG scenario rather than a computer game. There’s little concept of cover, few open areas, no platforming and certainly no mutability in the game world. There are still a few minor puzzles, but it’s clear that the graphical gloss comes at the cost of interactivity. I expected the game to make more use of the fact that you’re in a pressurised container at the bottom of the Atlantic (flooding or draining areas, floating platforms, or something), but it’s hard to complain that it’s ‘just’ used for spectacle when it fills that role so well.

Hunting the Big Daddies is a bit of a let down, considering their focal role in the game. They’re basically bullet sponges with limited AI. For the first few levels of the game there isn’t any effective strategic way to fight them beyond emptying clips into them and running like hell (and more often than not respawning repeatedly). The level design doesn’t help here either – there’s no way to have a cat and mouse running battle, because there’s nowhere to hide from the Bouncer’s nearly impossible to dodge drill charge attack. Once the player has the chemical thrower and a few other gizmos Big Daddies represent no threat at all.

I would have preferred the Big Daddy battles to give the impression of fighting a massively stronger enemy, which could be cut down to size using indirect means (think Ewoks verses AT-STs). There are hindrances that the player can use such as oil puddles, proximity mines and trap bolts, but they’re fiddly and underpowered. I wanted to be able to lure them out onto thin ice, or weld them to the floor in the path of a train, or drop a load of scrap metal on them, or anything other than just having a shootout. When games like Resident Evil 4 essentially offer designers a bumper illustrated book of fun and interesting boss ideas, there’s no excuse for just sticking a diving helmet on a pinky demon from Doom.

Most of the combat in the game is uninspiring. The fiddlyness of switching weapons and ammo types and constantly reloading (magazine sizes for your weapons and plasmids are generally tiny) is an unwelcome distraction when fighting multiple enemies. I found that I was using the wrench, chemical thrower and grenades almost exclusively. The pistol and machine gun tend to burn through ammo and the shotgun is useless even when fully upgraded. The dustbin lid sized ‘crosshair’ (necessitated by the console version’s autoaim) makes the ranged weapons feel imprecise.

We then come to two ill-thought-out secondary interfaces which both serve as good examples of lazily following Irrational/Looking Glass conventions without stopping to consider if they’re suitable: hacking and the research camera. Both of these serve their purpose, but both are hopelessly outclassed by their equivalent solutions in Metroid Prime 3 Corruption: welding and the scan visor. The research camera gets an additional black mark for only being able to ‘see’ what the game considers to be standard enemies. You can’t photograph boss characters, or incidental appearances of enemies (such as the Big Daddy walking around on the seabed).

My final gripe is more of a plea to the industry at large – do we really need to have security cameras and automated turrets in every game? They’re lazy and cheap to a degree that’s practically insulting to the player. And don’t get me started on the security bots. Let’s punish the player for walking in the wrong place by annoying them with noisy flashing Daikatana-esque flying enemies for a whole minute! Furthermore, in Bioshock none of these systems make a shred of sense in the context of the game setting.

While the narrative aspects of the game are unimpeachable, it’s a shame that the rest of the game falls between the action and adventure stools. It never really fully commits to either camp and feels a bit muted as a result. You don’t really do anything much more ambitious than opening doors and turning valves. By way of contrast, in Metroid Prime 3 (which, in a nice bit of symmetry, has great mechanics but an execrable narrative component) the player at one point visits a fantastically baroque steampunk version of Cloud City, in which they have to construct a giant bomb, which they then have to fly down to the surface of the planet, fighting off boarding space pirates and repairing the damaged escape capsule, against a time limit. (There are similarly memorable sequences scattered throughout the game.) Bioshock doesn’t have anything that works as well as a game as that, but then no game has ever had anything as good storywise as the pivotal scene at the Hephaestus.

For all it’s shortcomings, I still found myself completely immersed in Rapture for five hours at a time, so it must’ve been doing something right. It’s not really a rehash or a dumbing down of System Shock so much as an adaptation of System Shock’s qualities to the demands of a modern audience – not idiots, but not willing to put up with the clunkiness inherent in 1990s PC games. It’s not entirely successful in that aim, but it’s the right sort of thing for developers to be doing, rather than concentrating solely on games as vapid and generic as Halo 3, Crysis and their ilk.

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