I finished Bioshock last week. I have to say, it was a pretty good game. I certainly don’t regard it as a 10/10 perfect game. But then, I don’t think any game will ever be perfect.I was pretty aware but resistant to the mass of Biohype that preceded the game’s launch. I’d heard plenty of talk about how the game offered unheard of levels of freedom. That challenges in the game could be overcome in a variety of different ways. That no two player would play the game the same. Pretty lofty claims! Lofty, assuming you’ve never played a sports game or something as revolutionary as chess, perhaps.
I’d considered these claims and wondered what variety of dilemas that game was going to present to the player that would necessitate such an array of abilities and behaviours. After downloading the impressive demo on my 360 I decided to buy a copy of the game and find out for myself.
Now that I’ve played through the game and have been listening to the excited comments from people who claim the game cured their blindness just from coming withing ten yards of the box, I have to say that it doesn’t meet any of the lofty claims that its developers, publishers, reviewers and fans have breathlessly foisted upon it.
Oh, that’s not good is it? I’ve started to criticise Bioshock. Obviously, I must be wrong. You might as well stop reading now. The last thing you need is to carry on reading the rantings of some hate-fuelled killjoy that doesn’t appreciate why Bioshock is perfect.
For those of you that haven’t stropped off in disgust at the first sentence that didn’t match your own opinion, I’ll now elaborate why the game isn’t perfect.
Firstly, let’s get the necessary out of the way – from this point forward there may be SPOILERS of the game in this text. Frankly, I’m not fussed about learning spoilers in a game and I’ve little time for crybabies that act like you’ve just bitten off their leg who ARE bothered about such revelations. But there you go, I’ve warned you. Now, would you kindly show some backbone and not complain about reading stuff you didn’t have to read. Thanks!
My biggest issue with the game is the claim of unrivaled freedom in the genre. Now, cynic that I am, I was wary of this before I played the game. The cynic in me thought it was quite a major claim to make and, considering the restrictions of the first-person genre, would truly be revolutionary if it turned out to be true.
When push comes to shove, Bioshock isn’t really doing a great deal of interaction. The core game follows standard FPS template (walk, run, jump, aim, shoot, reload). The major embellishment to this is that the game allows you to pick up loads of stuff. Well, that in itself isn’t very special. I mean, most FPSs see you picking up health and ammo. So, there’s MORE stuff to pickup. But, regardless of the variety of stuff you’re picking up, you’ve not expanded your level of interaction with the world. Picking stuff up is picking stuff up – regardless of what that stuff may be.
Different types of interaction beyond picking things up would be flicking swtiches/pulling levers. There’s a few instances in the game when your character does that. Once again, we’re not quite entering pioneering ground here.
And there’s lots of objects to open and search inside. And when I say lots, I mean fucking LOADS. Seriously. But do you interact with them? Not especially. You can’t move them to allow access to different areas by making makeshift stairs. You can’t push them or pull them. You can’t use them to wedge doors open. You can’t place them on pressure-sensitive switches (because there aren’t any). So they act as set-dressing and as an extra step to picking stuff up. Instead of picking stuff up directly, you ‘search’ by pressing a button to reveal a list of stuff you can pick up. Then you pick it up.
Oh, I’ll add that *some* objects in the game world can be moved using the power of telekenesis – although these tend not to be BIG objects. Moving objects serves little purpose other than to pull a distant goodie closer to you (so you can pick it up, yay!) or to fling at an enemy in order to hurt or kill them – which isn’t a particularly uncommon goal in first-person games.
Some objects in the world are locked – such as safes. You can ‘hack’ these to open them. Essentially what we’ve done is add another step to the ‘picking stuff up’ formula. Now you have to hack, then open and then pick stuff up.
Doors open automatically (apart from special doors that don’t – such as little hatchways for you to crawl into – such areas typically hold.. wait for it.. items that you can pick up)
What’s left? Vending machines. You can buy stuff from a very pretty menu. There’s a few flavours of vending machine/menus around. Fortunately, one of them allows you to combine your stash of stuff magically carried about your person (the game doesn’t bother with an inventory to display the results of your obsessive scavenging). The pretty menu allows you to combine your petty stuff into more significant stuff. But it’s still all stuff, y’know?
So, we’ve not really broken any moulds with it comes to the passive interaction. What’s next?
Well, unsurprisingly, you’re not alone. There’s automated turrets that will shoot you. You can shoot them back if you like. Or you can hack them so that instead of them shooting at you, they’ll shoot at your enemies. How do they know who your enemies are? I don’t know. You must have hacked it into them or something. What else can you do with them? What unparallelled level of interaction does the game offer? None, it would seem. You can’t push them around or relocate them. They either shoot you or they don’t.
Cameras cast their beady gaze in many places too. Stay out of their view lest sirens go off and heli-bots go at you (which you can shoot or hack). You can hack cameras too so that they like you but don’t like your enemies. How do they determine the difference? Erm.. dunno. So I guess the camera thing is cute but it’s not radically changing the way the game is played. Stuff still gets shot at, it’s just other stuff instead of you.
So, that leaves the other people in Rapture. The other people have a wealth of ways of interacting with you. Some will shoot you. Some will attack you. Others will try to cause you harm. Their buddies might try to kill you. Your wealth of options with dealing with these startling AI entities involve shooting a variety of steampunk weapons at them or using your plasmids. These typically see you emitting different pretty ways of doing harm to others. Fire and lightening are common. Bees and tornados are somewhat different. Oh, but tornados don’t work on objects such as gun turrets. Odd that. The “turn the enemy into your friend” mechanic is can be employed here also and is available to you in a variety of guises with plasmids. You can make folk angry so they try to kill anything near them. You can tag folk so that they are the target for all the AI attacks instead of you. I’m sure you get the picture.
These are all means to an end. The player is still not interacting with the characters or the world in any new and fascinating way. In essence, the player is still using weapons to deal with enemies. You can’t talk your way out of a situation. You can’t jump on their heads and squash them. You CAN ignore them. You can’t trade your items with them. You can kill or you can be killed. That’s it. Bioshock’s achievement is that it’s come up with some very evocative ways of achieving this age-old goal. It hasn’t actually changed the goal.
What about the characters that speak to you and push the story along! You don’t kill them, do you! HA!
Well, actually, you kill all the principle characters the game lets you get close to. All the other characters are forcibly seperated from the player using the revolutionary mechanic of placing the player behind a big sheet of glass. So, no, you don’t kill them – but then you don’t actually do anything with them at all. You just sit and watch. In one instance you actually sit and watch as the game forces you to a kill a character. Riiiiight..
So, beyond a very typical set of on/off rules this wonderful game doesn’t actually break any new ground in terms of gameplay. This binary ruleset even applies to the game’s big hope for emotional connection when it comes to encounters with Little Sisters. Do you save them (good ending) or harvest them (bad ending)? You don’t talk to them. You can’t kill them either. And considering the amount of effort gone into forcing emotion and backstory rather bluntly into the game, the payoff isn’t half as rewarding as something like Ico – which has about 10 lines of text in the whole damn game.
And this promise of unprecedented freedom ain’t all that. You have freedom to do what you like in a variety of ways – so long as what you want to do is kill things. Rather bizarrely, you are not free to hold more than $500 in the game. Even though you can hold hundreds of assorted items. Even more oddly, your finances are reported in four figures (as in $0500) which reinforces this abitrary limit on the player’s supposed freedom. Other inventory contradictions show that you can only hold 9 heath pickups and 9 plasmid pickups, no more. But bits of rubber tubing and metal cases? You can hold as many as you like! Odd.
Sometimes these non-violent NPCs want you to do things. However these things tend to break down to either picking stuff up or shooting things (with a camera – that uses film as it’s ammo mechanic). So, once again, we’re doing the same thing but just giving it a different label.
As such, in terms of gameplay, I found Bioshock pretty unremarkable. It is, by no means, this champion of gaming that a perfect score would suggest.
There’s arguments against this, of course. But, to it’s credit, Bioshock covers up it’s unremarkable gameplay with very pretty graphics and some of the best sound design I’ve ever encountered in a game.
One area that I particularly admire the game for is in it’s use of the audio diaries that are littered about the game world. Now, I’m not particularly amazed at how these diaries give the player episodes of back story and motive to what went on before he arrived. That’s just narrative. It’s not particularly carefully handled, it’s not startlingly intelligent, it’s certainly not especially clever writing (everything is spelled out to the player in the end – really spelled out so that even simple gamers can understand what’s going on.) In fact, the implementation could have been a bit better – the varying volume levels were annoying. In terms of context, some of the things mentioned in the audio diaries (such as passwords and top-level secrets and unethical musings) are about as absurd as a Bond villain always telling Bond his master plans and then walking away believing the sharks will eat him. Contextually, it’s rather broken.
No, what I love about the audio diaries is that it was a fantastically economic and smart move to do. You get loads of exposition and you don’t have to animate anyone – just record script. Big pat on the back for whoever came up with that solution for the narrative and character development. Top marks!
Credit where it’s due, Bioshock is a lovely game to look at. But like other astoundingly pretty games like Gears of War or Resident Evil 4, this lavish set dressing succeeds in fooling a lot of people into thinking the gameplay is more than it is. Many people claim that “games are more than just graphics” and then tend to adore games with very pretty graphics but gameplay that doesn’t compare. Like Resident Evil 4, Bioshock does this very well. When you purposefully seperate the game’s aesthetics from the actual player gameplay you’re left with a huge amount of garnish for a rather small meal.
All in all, Bioshock is a superb game but it’s another example (like RE4 and Gears of War) where prettiness is being confused with substance. That the gaming community adopted this game (in part, thanks to some very community-friendly marketing) also meant that it was going to be championed and any argument would be shot down with the usual mob-rule mentality that game nazis love to excersize.
Bioshock is just about more than the sum of it’s parts. It has a lot of unrealised potential (the compelling “underwater city” setting is criminally underused). It does many things well, but, for it’s claims and for the amount of time it has had to learn from masters of the trade, it is no where nearly as good as it should have been.
It’s rather odd really. Bioshock suggests a rich open gameplay nirvana and then brings in lots of invisible gameplay walls but uses great audio and pretty images to distract you. Space Giraffe is the opposite – suggesting a very limited and narrow gameplay experience and dispensing with aesthetic pleasantries and then turns out to offer a whole lot more game that it’s author let on.
I know which game I’ll be playing for longer!