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A long-winded rant about BioShock

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A long-winded rant about BioShock

Review - posted by DarkUnderlord on Mon 28 July 2008, 11:01:23

Tags: BioShock

Committed to delivering


In a long Codex tradition of talking about games that aren't really RPGs, we've been posting news about BioShock almost since it was announced. Back then, BioShock was striving to be something more than just a shooter. Touted as the spiritual sucessor to System Shock, this is what Ken Levine - the brains behind BioShock - had to say about the game, taken straight from the first news item we ever posted about BioShock:
Ken Levine: If we wanted to make a BioShock-lite, we could have done that; an action shooter set in the BioShock universe. I think we've all heard that tune before. And if the publisher is paying the bills from day one, and they have a substantial financial investment, it's only natural to assume they'd want to drive the product in a direction they view will be most profitable. And to make that determination, the marketing department generally becomes heavily involved early on in the design process. While that works great for an existing franchise, such as Tribes and SWAT (where Sierra brought tremendous knowledge of those brands to the table), the design goals of BioShock aren't necessarily something your average marketing person will jump at. Until Grand Theft Auto came along and proved such games could be financially successful, you couldn't even discuss terms like "emergence" and "open-ended." You had to sneak them in between making AVIs featuring hot chicks and bullet-time.

That's changing now. Gamers clearly get these design principles, and that's why the reaction to the announcement of BioShock was so broad. People want to play that type of game. They crave innovation. And that's what Irrational is committed to delivering.

Right from the start, BioShock was "more than an action shooter". It was something else. It was emergent, open-ended, innovative and Irrational were committed to delivering. In fact, according to that first announcement, BioShock was going to offer quite a lot:
By implanting the proper plasmids [genetic advancements received in the game] in your body, you may be able to affect your body's resistance to extreme air pressure or extreme temperatures. This ability will come in handy in the complex's climate-controlled areas, where switches that affect the area's temperature can be used to manipulate the environment. So for instance, if you're in a room full of enemies that are vulnerable to intense heat, and you have a plasmid that resists heat, you can safely turn the room's thermostat all the way up, putting your enemies at a disadvantage while you remain relatively safe. Another plasmid ability that was suggested was the ability to survive unnatural air pressure. With this plasmid, players would be able to use a pressurization switch to change the air pressure in a room to the extent that sound simply wouldn't carry as far. This would effectively give your character the ability to stealthily move with less chance of being heard, but your own hearing would also be compromised by the pressure drop as well.

I don't know if those examples were hyperbole courtesy of GameSpot or whether Irrational had been spoon-feeding them lies but I can tell you that, having played the game, I never encountered the opportunity to do either of those. I'll dwell more on that later however because finally for now, I want to refer you to a preview of BioShock released in 2007. In it, Bit-Tech state that "Role-playing elements are still heavily featured in the game". It wasn't the only p/review to mention these alleged "role-playing elements" and it's those that attracted us at the RPGCodex. Yup, BioShock was going to be one of those games that would have the so far evasive and mystical "role-playing elements". What I want to do in this review is not only give you my opinion on the game from a whinging RPG nerd's perspective but also to see if BioShock really lives up to the hyped expectations.


A whinge about the basics


Before getting into the game, there are a few basic things I want to whinge about (you might want to skip this section if you just want the game info). The first of those is opening videos. I really am getting sick and tired of having to sit through three or four company logo's before the game actually lets me do anything. It's branding and I don't care for it. Let me press escape ONCE (not once for every video, just once in total) and skip them to get right to the start menu. Unfortunately, BioShock forces you to sit through four opening videos before you can skip to the start. First you'll be presented with a disclaimer in five different languages advising you that various bits are trademarked and that "the events in this game are fictional" (just in case you got confused with your own life experience). There are two screens of that, followed by an "Unreal Technology" logo and finally the now ubiquitous Nvidia sign. It takes about a full 30 seconds to sit through them before you get to hit escape and bypass the remaining two (yes, two) "2K Games" logos. Sure 30 seconds isn't much but I want to play your game, not sit through your branding.


Yup, BioShock

Under the sea


Along the same lines are skippable cut-scenes (be they in-engine or otherwise). Cut scenes you can't skip are annoying and incredibly frustrating. Especially when you can't save after them when you want to, you die and you have to repeat them. If you play the game multiple times it can also get rather boring watching the same forced movies, particularly when they drag on for quite some time. Is it so hard to allow me to hit escape?

My third complaint is alt-tab. I have one of those keyboards with the stupid windows keys and (before I learned you could disable it) I used to hit it accidentally all the time. Of course that opened the start menu, which knocked me out of the game I was playing and for some games, that was disastrous as they'd often crash and not let you back in without a "ctrl-alt-delete ->> kill program". It's also nice to be able to alt-tab during a game so you can do things like say, jot down a few notes for a review you might be writing. Thankfully, BioShock doesn't crash so much when you alt-tab. Now sometimes it worked quite well without any problems, most of the time however, it had great difficulty letting you do anything else. I'd alt-tab only to have the game kind of sitting on top of everything in a small window with everything else hidden underneath. I could get back in but it took a few clicks and an alt-enter to get it back to working order.


Alt-Tab doesn't work so well.

Loading...


Another whinge I have is that BioShock often displays a loading screen which has some tips and looks quite nice. Sadly, there's no progress indicator so I have no idea whether it's going to take another five minutes or another ten seconds. Thankfully, the loading wasn't too long and it didn't come up often (only between levels and for the most part levels where quite large). It's just one of those things that'd make it easier though and more and more, I'm noticing games seem to be losing them. Progress indicators aren't difficult to do.

The last thing I want to bore you with before I get on to the actual game is the ability to name save games. Some years ago, a really awesome game called Doom (yes, the original one) let you save your game and when you did, you could name the save slot. For example "Saving Little Sisters" vs "Killing Little Sisters". It's a nice and convenient way of putting down a note so you could know what that save game was about. BioShock doesn't let you do that, instead only saving the name of the level you are on. Given I'm trying to write a review it was necessary for me to save at various points and go back and check things. Do you know how hard that is to do when all your save games are titled the same? I had to load them all systematically to figure out which one was the one I wanted.

My gripe is that this is really basic shit and it's about time developers got it right. No, really. If you're a developer, make a checklist right now of the things I've just said above and make sure your next game has them. Please, for the love of small children and fuzzy kittens everywhere. It might not seem like much but it's the little things that count.


Welcome to BioShock


BioShock throws you right into the game world without a second thought. The game begins with a plane accident of which you are the sole survivor. Thrown into the ocean and surrounded by burning wreckage, there's only one way to go and you take it, eventually swimming to a small island with a lighthouse. Getting ashore and walking inside, you find a mechanical bubble called a Bathysphere. You hop in and without anywhere else to go (especially because the front door magically closed behind you as you entered - yes sadly, BioShock is one of those games), you pull the lever. The Bathysphere begins to dive down...


Burning wreckage.

One of BioShock's Bathyspheres


Not long later, some bloke called Atlas is talking to you over the radio about a place called "Rapture" and he's mentioning Adam and Eve and Splicers. There's no real mention of your plane accident (other than the fact you survived one) or why Atlas decided to start talking to you other than because you picked up a radio that was lying about. As he's talking, you're looking out the windows at a vast underwater city. You eventually stumble across a needle and, as one does in situations like this, jab the needle into your arm without a second thought. Welcome to your first genetic upgrade. Part of you will wonder why you're doing that, the other part... Well hey, it's the BioShock experience. Hop on, sit down, strap yourself in and go along with the ride.

At the start, I did find this all a bit overwhelming too. Trying to figure out what everything was and how it worked and what I was supposed to do with it. Trying to take in the visuals and the sound of what was happening around me. Game concepts like Adam I didn't work out until I started to use it (more on that later). Eve seemed to be some kind of blue mana bar. Splicers were the bad guys. At first, I wasn't even sure if I was supposed to kill anything. Of course, that thought vanished when stuff tried to kill me. Now this slight overwhelming feeling is not a bad thing and to be honest, it actually turned into quite a good thing. BioShock isn't afraid to show you its world and dump you in the thick of it, leaving you to figure out just what the hell is going on. It adds atmosphere in spades and gives it a nice exploration element. You find yourself wanting to know more about what's happening and it drives you on.


Welcome to Rapture

A sign of things to come


In fact, right from the start, atmosphere is what BioShock really does do well and the game never lets up. You soon realise that every level is not just well-designed, it's quite brilliantly designed. Movie theatres, medical facilities... When you see them, things make sense. This isn't the usual case where you get to the end and realise the design team ran out of money to do what they wanted and ditched most of it. BioShock maintains its atmosphere through-out the entire game. If anything, the design only gets better as you go on. Characters are introduced to you not just by seeing them and having Atlas talk to you but through audio diaries you find. The world starts to really come alive when you find an audio recording about how some Doctor confronted someone and left them dead in the bathtub, only to turn the corner and find the bathtub they're talking about... With the person still in it. Everything has a context and the meaning behind everything has been woven through-out the game. In terms of game-play, these are actually tiny little things (let's be honest, for the most part you run around and kill shit) but they're done so well that they really do add a lot to the whole experience when it's all put together.


The Audiovisual Experience


Visually, the game-world of Rapture is striking. The 1960's Art Deco feel is superbly done. Looking out windows and peering through the water to see other buildings and signs (of areas you will eventually visit) is quite nice. It all adds to the visual experience. Posters advertise services from people who's audio recordings you find and who Atlas will talk about. Even shadows are played with. Look around a corner and you won't see a monster, you'll see a shadow on the wall. Walk closer and it'll run away, only to jump down from behind you. Simple tricks but it all adds up to make a breathtakingly, brilliantly designed world.


Peering through the glass

Advertising


... and it doesn't end there. BioShock also uses audio superbly as well. Beyond the audio diaries mentioned earlier, the monsters you're fighting often have conversations with each other before they realise you're there. Then when they attack, they're using phrases that relate to the game-world. As you walk past the in-game vending machines, they kick into life and start playing a cheery song. Video screens will display short movies as you walk by on occassion and some rooms even have speakers with audio advertising. As you find and collect Plasmids (the game's "magic spells"), you're shown a short video. Again, it's simple stuff but it makes you want to listen to the world and think about what you're hearing for at least a while before you go ahead and blow the next monster's brains out.

Unfortunately, all of this does get a bit much at times. Audio diaries for instance are often found (quite literally) three or four deep in a single room. So many in fact that instead of being able to continue exploring while you listen, you have to stop for awhile just to ensure you hear them all. You'll also encounter times when several things are happening at once. One of BioShock's tricks is to see ghosts walking around. They're usually having a conversation that adds depth and meaning to the area you're in but when they're doing that, while you're listening to an audio tape and monsters are attacking you and Atlas is trying to speak to you over the radio, there's just too much happening at once and too much confusion to allow you to listen to any of it.



Grandma got left behind

Evolution


I'd even go so far as to say BioShock really could've done with half the number of audio diaries (ignoring the fact that it makes no sense to even find audio diaries in the first place. I mean what was going on, everyone was leaving audio notes behind while their world was falling apart? Who has the time for that?). Monsters too often have the same conversation. It's not as repetive as Oblivion's "I saw a mudcrab the other day" but if I hear another "Father, forgive me" I'm going to have to kill someone. But while it would've been nice if they'd thrown in a newspaper once in a while and let me read that or had an old magazine I could pick up, just to break up the audio barrage, what they have done is enjoyable. I also have to admit that the voice-acting through-out the entire game is superbly done (and unlike Oblivion, characters actually sound different and don't change voices five times while speaking).

Then there are the moments of drama. At the start of the game a piece of plane wreckage, which has been slowly floating down, crashes through one of the beautiful glass walkways. Suddenly water rushes in and you sense the urgent need to get out of their quickly (if memory serves Atlas, your radio guide, even says as much). Moments like that made me sit up and go "wow" and maybe even scared me a little... Until you realise that the quickly rising water only rises so far before it stops and despite all its rushing, it's never going to actually rise any further and drown you. There are other moments too, such as one where monster-people are banging on the window to break into an area you just secured and you're advised to "get out of there!", only to find that if you stand there long enough, they never break-through. In short, what looks dangerous, isn't. However, these are nice tricks and they do work well to add to the atmosphere. At least until you see through them.


It looks impressive but never floods

Injecting Plasmids


There were also many times when I thought I'd be able to jump over an obstacle or get through an area only to find that I somehow couldn't. An invisible wall appeared to be blocking the way. It either turned out that those areas simply weren't accessible (such as hopping into the pool of water next to the Bathysphere) or opened up afterwards when you'd triggered something. In fact, BioShock is almost as linear as any other shooter with only one way through most of the time and areas opening after you'd dealt with certain monsters. Early on, this destroyed some of the atmosphere the game had created and made it all feel rather artificial. It wasn't too bad for the most part though and with that said, I did get lost a few times when I had opened up the entire level, so it's not as obvious as your typical shooter.

However, the game also goes out of its way to help you. Right off the bat, you're given access to a very comprehensive in-game map which makes getting from point A to point B as easy as pie. There's a reasonably discreet quest compass which doesn't just point in a vague direction, it actually points and moves as you walk around. If your goal is up some stairs, turn left, turn right, jump through a hole and hop over a fence, the compass leads you through every twist and turn the entire way. Hints pop-up as you do things, telling you to press M for further information about an object you're looking at or even just advising you to "try hacking the security camera" or "press H for a hint". At first I thought this was all tutorial level stuff but no, it's with you through-out the entire game. If you don't like it, you can turn most of it off (the compass and the pop-up hints). Information also doesn't appear in your help menu until you've discovered them in-game so you can't just read ahead and get up to speed.


Comprehensive Map System

Help is available as you discover things


Even with all this help (and having read a bunch of reviews), the best way to enjoy and learn about BioShock is to simply go with the flow and embrace the game-world you've inexplicably found yourself in. Concepts are explained as the game progresses and it takes about the first third of the game before you finally have access to everything. A few levels on and you're using that stuff as if its second nature. I'd put the complaints I have down to being part of the BioShock experience. If you're able to just go along with it and get caught up in the atmopshere, you'll soon find yourself enjoying the game. Provided you don't think about it too much.


Adam, Eve and their friend Plasmid


Before I go on, I should probably explain some of BioShock's concepts (on the off-chance you haven't played the game already). For starters, the game takes place in Rapture, an under-water city built in an Art Deco style and with a lot of 1950's style propoganda about the place. A bloke called Andrew Ryan is the one who magic'd it up (and he would've had to, given building underwater would've been a fairly reasonable technological challenge at the time, not to mention the expense). It's never really explained how Rapture was built or quite how people got there but suffice to say it exists. Unfortunately, it didn't exist for long. The city's scientists discovered gene technology which allowed them to "improve" things. A substance they called "Adam" allowed them to genetically modify people. Inject them with enough Adam and manipulate their DNA via a "Plasmid" and you can make them shoot fireballs.


Bashing corpses is fun

Attacking one of the inhabitants of Rapture


There are a bunch of these Plasmids all with various different results. Fire, Ice, Lightning, Swarm of Insects (have fun trying to mentally deduce how that one works)... All of them provide you with some interesting ways to defeat enemies. There's also a series of Tonics. These are "constant effect" spells which you can equip to get various results such as "Eve from health-kits" or "faster wrench swinging". Of course, this ability to mould the human form came with a price. Namely the downfall of Rapture's entire society. People could use Adam to become beautiful or ugly or turn themselves into a multi-headed penis monster (at least, one assumes). Cue chaos and mayhem, a fight over who controls the Adam and the rise of mentally deranged inhabitants.

Somehow or another, one of those twisted minds eventually realised you could harvest Adam from the dead. Their bright idea was to turn schoolgirls into "Little Sisters". They live in the walls (as all good little girls should) and when people die, they jump out with their syringes, wander over to the corpse and suck the Adam remnants out of them to be re-processed. Of course, they re-process the Adam themselves by ingesting it, which in-turn makes them "near invulnerable to damage" (according to various audio diaries). Unfortunately, it seems nobody told the game designers that because they went ahead and created the Big Daddy. The Big Daddy is a giant guy in a diving suit who wanders around solely to protect the Little Sisters... and those guys are tough as hell.


Paedophile's Playground

Harvesting children is fun!


Bridgette Tenenbaum, the scientist who helped create the girls, also seems to forget that the Little Sisters are invulnerable. In the very first moment you're introduced to them, she's busy saving one of her little girls from imminent death which is funny because no matter what you do, you can't kill the litle girls. Once their Big Daddy is dead, you can "harvest" or "save" them to get Adam (once Tenenbaum throws you the special Plasmid) but you can't shoot them. Apparently, bullets bounce off their immortal child-like hides. Not even the trusty wrench will hit them which is particularly interesting considering the first time you meet one, Tenenbaum is saving a girl who's about to be killed by a guy wielding... a wrench. Apparently he hadn't been told either. Also funny is that Dr Tenenbaum shoots the guy to save the girl but then happily walks off, rather than hanging around to see if you're going to save her or not... That just seems like a half-hearted effort at saving her to me. Tenenbaum will even help you out later in the game, despite the fact you've sucked the life out of every single Little Sister you've met. Like I said, BioShock makes a lot of sense until you start to think about it a little too deeply.


Unlimited Lives and their impact on the Care Factor


Another game concept you should be aware of are the Vita-Chambers scattered about the place. These magic machines are another of BioShock's "sounds nice in theory", "doesn't work if you actually think about it" plot devices. Their sole purpose is to revive you when you die. Yes, when you die, you respawn with about 70% health inside one of these. Through the magic of 1950's science, you'll also have all of your weapons, ammunition, health-kits and Plasmids on you as well. No need to find your corpse to collect your stuff (in fact, you can't as your corpse never exists), it's just on you like in Grand Theft Auto when you have the right girlfriend.


Despite the sign, these aren't available for everyone

Unlike Portal, all the bloody writing you encounter is unique


While there is an in-story explanation it simply doesn't work as a believable game concept. That is, if they only work on certain people as explained in-game, why would they be all over town? Why not just have the one in that special person's office? The other problem is how come people are trying to kill me if I can just pop right back in a Vita-Chamber? Don't they realise I'm going to win? If I was facing an unkillable respawning enemy, I'd sure as hell be thinking about surrendering. In short, it actually makes you question the brilliantly designed world... until you realise that it's a device designed for the mentally challenged gamer who, after playing BioShock for an hour or two, just no longer gives a shit.

Like Prey and many other first-person shooters, it seems death is too much of a chore these days and it needs to be removed at all cost (in this category are Crysis which had auto re-generating health suits and Doom 3's magic healing cube). The problem is, that cost is the "care factor" you have when it comes to dealing with enemies. Simply put, why should you bother trying to save your own life when you're only going to pop back alive a few seconds later and not very far away (Vita-Chambers are literally everywhere)? Imagine fighting the CyberDemon in Doom if you could just get your health back (oh wait, they did that in Doom 3 with that stupid cube). The point is, it removes the challenge, it removes the fun.


Big Daddy on the prowl

A ransacked desk


Lure a Big Daddy outside of a Vita-Chamber and what would've been a challenging and fun gun / Plasmid fight to the death using up all your first-aid kits, just becomes a case of whacking him repeatedly with the wrench until he dies. He'll kill you several times but you'll just pop right back. You don't even need to try. Because of this, you eventually cease to care about death as a consequence and sadly, death is used everywhere in the game. Found an instant-death trap that if you aren't careful enough, you'll set it off? Don't worry, just set it off, die and come back with the trap safely de-activated. Accidentally set off the alarm and you've now got security copters annoying you? Just let them kill you. You'll pop right back at the nearest Vita-Chamber with pretty much full health and the alarm will have de-activated. There are even explosive barrels about the place which cause massive damage to bad guys, like Big Daddies. So what do you do in a game with unlimited lives? You stand right next to them, wait for the Big Daddy to get near and you shoot the barrels. It's instant death for you and some massive damage for the Big Daddy.

As a result, you begin to play the game carelessly and don't actually value ammo, first-aid kits or any of the crap you pick up. None of it matters. The basic Wrench + Unlimited Vita-Chamber respawns = Win. BioShock isn't about skill or figuring out the tricks, like using the Chaingun on the Cacodemon. It's just about persistence. If you play it, you'll eventually win. No effort required. Game designers who think respawning the hero in a single-player game is a good idea need to be rounded up and exterminated. It's nothing short of an excuse for piss-poor game-play design. Why put all this effort into designing such a beautiful world if you're not going to make me care about what I do there?


What do you do in Rapture?


All right, so the world looks and sounds brilliant and there are some whacky concepts going on, despite a few complaints... But what do you actually do in BioShock? Well, there are several things... and many of them are annoying. At its core the game is a straight-out shooter. Most of the time you're wandering around in search of the blue key while monsters jump out at you, forcing you to kill them with various weapons. The difference though, is that in BioShock it's not a blue key, it's the dead corpse of a victim some insane person has asked you to photograph so that they can add it to their art gallery. Once you've done that, they'll gladly open the door through to the next area for you. The weapons too aren't just your typical guns because you've got the Plasmids as well which pretty much act like magic spells. That might sound a bit cheesy but trust me, when you're experiencing it all in-game, it's very, very well done... at least from an atmospheric point of view.


The best weapon in the game

Advertising the in-game health-kits


The downside is that for all the show, BioShock has some pretty disapponting game-play. The very first weapon you pick up is the wrench and the very first Plasmid you acquire is the lightning shock thing. The very next guy you kill you SHOCK with the lightning, which stuns him momentarily and then WHACK with the wrench. As he's stunned, the hit kills him instantly. The alternative is to run about like a jack-ass trying to hit him with your wrench but that only costs you health (not that you really worry about that) and takes up more of your time. Particularly when you're fighting multiple opponents at once, which you often are. Even later in the game when you have more weapons, you realise that you could switch to the pistol, change to the anti-personnel ammo (each weapon has three types of ammo which work better on some monsters), fire 6 shots and (assuming those 6 shots all hit, which is unlikely given how fast those things are running and jumping around the place), take out the Splicer that's attacking you OR you could just go LIGHTNING, WRENCH in about the same amount of time it'd take you to load your gun in the first place. Which would you choose?

Sadly, this pattern can be repeated quite successfully for almost every single monster through-out the entire game (excepting the Big Daddies and a small handful of enemies who are shock proof - it's okay, you can just freeze them instead and do the same thing). SHOCK, WHACK. SHOCK, WHACK. SHOCK, WHACK. Like the audio diaries I mentioned earlier, BioShock takes a nice concept and rams it down your throat so many times that you really get fucking sick and tired of it. In the end, you use various different Plasmids and weapons not because they work any better (if anything, they actually work worse) but because you got bored of SHOCKing and WHACKing everything.


SHOCK

WHACK


Another thing you get to do in the game is hacking. Rapture has various vending machines about the place which sell you a range of products (health-kits and ammo). As you run around Rapture, you get cash from the pockets of your dead foes (or found in the variety of containers lying about the place) which you can use at these machines. Hacking them allows you to purchase those items for a discount, saving you a fair bit of money in the long-run. Again though, like audio diaries and the SHOCK-WHACK, it's over-used. There are often several vending machines through-out a level, not to mention the automated gun turrets (which you can hack to use against your enemies), security cameras (see turrets) and other devices which you can hack. Unfortunately, hacking all of these is done through the world's most retarded mini-game ever.

When you hack something, there's a start point and an end point. A liquid begins to flow from the start point and your job is to make a connection to the end point before the liquid flows out and shocks you (minor damage which never seems to kill you, even if you're low on health). You make the connection by revealing tube pieces which are hidden beneath tiles marked with question marks. You click the question mark which reveals the piece of tube underneath and, if it's the straight or bent piece you need, you drag it into place. It's simple enough and that's partly the problem. It never gets hard. There are even Tonics in the game that make it easier by reducing the speed at which the liquid flows. Now at the start of the game, because you're low on cash and don't realise that health-kits and ammo are mostly useless (see SHOCK and WHACK), you hack everything you find. Eventually, given the sheer number of things to hack, you get sick of that too.


Vending Machine

Goods for sale


But don't despair! There are auto-hack tools which you can find within the game. These magic tools instantly hack anything you want without effort. Though in the end, you use them not because you can't hack but simply because you don't want to hack anything else. As a general rule of thumb for developers... If you're adding in special tools that allow you to bypass your mini-game, it means your mini-game is no fun and you should save us all the trouble by just tearing it out (like respawning heroes, developers who think mini-games are a good idea should be added to the extermination list).

Eventually in the game, you'll also come across a research camera. This camera is used to take photographs of the enemies you encounter. Once you've taken enough photograph's, you get a damage bonus or access to a special Plasmid or Tonic. This of course means that every time you walk into a room, you take a photograph of all the monsters in it until you no longer get any points for taking photograph's. This in itself creates a significant game-play problem. Rather than having uninterrupted game-play and the joy of the kill, you find yourself operating more like some kind of machine. Walk into a room, switch to the camera and take photograph's of the enemies as they charge you, run for any automated turrets or security cameras first and hack them to get them on your side, SHOCK and WHACK the enemies, search their corpses and any containers in the room for cash. Rinse and repeat that a couple of hundred times and you have BioShock's game-play in a nutshell.


Taking photograph's

Shocking never fails


Oh and enemies respawn too. Add that to the list of things developers need to be exterminated for. Why even bother clearing out a room if you're just going to run back through a few minutes later and find enemies there again? It's a waste of your ammo, it's a waste of Eve and it's a waste of time. Couple that with the Vita-Chambers and the lack-lustre feel of the combat and there's really little point to it all.


RPG elements and the lack there-of


At this point you might be wondering where all the "RPG elements" are. Honestly, I'm wondering that too. There are only three things I can point to as possible RPG elements and to be honest, they're iffy at best. The first one is the choice between saving the Little Sisters and killing them (by "harvesting" them). While killing them gets you more than twice as much Adam (which you spend at special vending machines to buy Plasmids like "Freezing Level 2" - see below), saving them results in Tenenbaum giving you bonus Adam anyway. Enough bonus Adam that the choice is moot (bearing in mind most Plasmids and Tonics you buy aren't really necessary). That's a bit of a choice and consequence. Given I was happily shooting up demented citizens though, I had no issue harvesting monster children. Another mild RPG element is you have some choice in how you fight your opponents. The game lets you swap Plasmids at a special machine which I guess is a bit like deciding whether you want to be a Fire Mage or an Ice Mage and then changing your mind mid-game and going with the other one. You could also use any of your guns. Again though, the choice isn't really significant.


The Gatherer's Garden lets you buy new
Plasmids with the Adam you've collected

One of the in-game Plasmid videos


The last thing that's remotely an RPG element is that monsters level up. Yep, as you go through the game, suddenly the monsters get inexplicably harder. They look the same, they act the same and they fight the same as their lower level counterparts but now they have more hit points. How do you counter this nefarious increase in difficulty? Well, the Plasmids also level up. By the end of the game, you won't just be using SHOCK, you'll be using SHOCK: Level 3. It works just the same as SHOCK: Level 1 but it stuns for longer! This leveling up also forces you to use the annoying research camera to ensure you get the damage bonus. Otherwise, what was once a three whack monster becomes a fifteen whack monster. While three whacks was bad enough, fifteen is really no fun at all.

You'll also be upgrading your weapons at special machines around the place as well. They only work once (as special machines do) but they let you select from a range of upgrades such as "Pistol Damage Increase" or "Shotgun Damage Increase". Someone thought hard about those. Eventually, you'll also start picking up bits of junk too. Rather than just cash, you'll start finding bits of pipe and oil inside containers. You use these at U-Invent Machines. Collect enough crap and you can make an auto-hack tool or get some more ammo. Surprisingly, this is all you do. You collect crap and if you have enough, you click on your selection and your invented item pops out. What? No mini-assembly game? I'm shocked. Shocked indeed.

The BioShock RPG elements could probably be best summed up by taking a look at the inside cover of the game's box. In fact, one of the first things you notice when you buy BioShock is that it has one of those flappy lids you can open up to find out more about the game. Inside is a picture of a fat ass bubble-headed monster thing with some labels. Take a look for yourself in the scanned image below.


What's inside the box?


As you can see, there are twelve different labels. Each one is a unique way for you to deal with this formidable looking opponent. Having played the game I can tell you now that they're all complete crap. What you're looking at is the "Big Daddy", the toughest monster in the game and for the most part, you don't have to kill them. You can leave them alone and they'll do their thing. However, an important part of the gameplay is that these things wander around protecting the Little Sisters. You, of course, need to get to these little girls so you can harvest their vital organs for Adam and you can't do that until you've killed the Big Daddy which protects them. It's actually quite a fun concept and something that's nice and a little bit different from your usual FPS.

However, especially playing on Hard difficulty (because I'm like that), they are tough as nuts to kill. The leads me to the problem with these 12 labels. The sad reality is that when facing a Big Daddy, you don't really have the choice of "tormenting him with insects" or "lighting him on fire and launching heat-seeking missiles". Because he's so tough, you're throwing everything you can at him just to try and put him down. Fire, lightning, ice, insects. Whatever it is you've got, you're using all of it. If there's a security system nearby, I can tell you now that you've already hacked it before you took him on. The research camera? You've already taken as many photo's as you can before you initiated combat. Catching grenades? Well, okay, so I never could quite figure that one out but still... If you did and you had that Plasmid (which you probably wouldn't have because it wasn't very useful for the most part), you did it.


The Chemical Thrower

Some of the fun things you'll find in BioShock


The labels make it sound like these are variable strategies you can use to take him on and in a sense, there is truth in that. You certainly can "send him flying" but unfortunately, it doesn't quite knock him senseless (not unless you do it about 100 times at which point you realise it's a waste of Eve and there are easier methods). You certainly could "brainwash him" but that didn't last too long either and to be honest, choosing that Plasmid just for the Big Daddy was kind of pointless... not because you were wasting a Plasmid (even if you did swap it out) but because the enemies weren't so tough (SHOCK, WHACK) that you needed his help anyway. And by the way, it was also pointless because even if you did, you had to kill him in the end in order to deal with the Little Sister he was protecting so you could get her Adam.

This is pretty much BioShock's problem throughout the whole game. Despite all the promises, there's not really any choice other than "kill stuff now" or "kill stuff later" and for the most part, you were killing stuff now. Given that's about the same choice you had in most of Oblivion's quests, I guess this is why it became a selling point.


Brilliantly designed world. Poorly designed game-play.


Despite my complaints, I actually enjoyed BioShock. As I said, the game-world has been quite superbly designed and I really do mean it. That on its own is definitely worth a play-through to experience. Games these days often seem to skimp on the world detail and it's nice to find something that has clearly had an awesome amount of effort put into it. It might take you a bit to really enjoy it though, as it wasn't until about the mid-point of the game before I really started to like it at all. That was around Arcadia. The Fort Frolic level was when I really felt the game was worth seeing through to the end and I'm glad I did.


Hacking gets old fast

Sometimes, the randomly generated hacks fail to work. This
one is simply unhackable. So you'll have to fail and try again.


It's just unfortunate that so many of BioShock's game-play elements become repetitive and annoying. You stop hacking items because it's simply not entertaining. You find another bunch of audio diaries and groan. There's nothing quite like OVER-USING A CONCEPT TO DEATH to ruin your fun. As for all the hype about the game both before and after its release? I don't think the game really deserved it. Take this quote from IGN's preview for example:
Irrational mentioned they're focusing more on interesting, emotional enemy A.I. rather than advanced squad tactics. Like with the Big Daddy, we're to expect lifelike, authentic behaviors rooted in more complex motivations than blind, murderous rage.

Splicers (what the majority of the monsters are called) really do have no other motivation than blind, murderous rage. The Big Daddy / Little Sister relationship is the only "emotional" AI I really saw and even then your only interaction with them in the end was to kill them. Even promises of strategy based around ammo didn't pan out:
When playing, players must exploit strengths and weaknesses [like using different ammo types] to help conserve ammo, of which there's far from an inexhaustible supply.

Playing the game on Hard didn't really find me at a loss for ammo or in a desperate need to "exploit weaknesses". Again, the SHOCK, WHACK combination probably had the most to do with that. Some of the weapons I even failed to use at all. The grenade launcher just seemed pathetically under-powered and the crossbow seemed to be a complete waste of design space. The large variety of Plasmids didn't really net you any better results against different enemies. Even most of the in-game cash I found was spent on first-aid kits and supplies of Eve which I'd really only use during a Big Daddy fight. I ignored most of the ammo vending machines unless they sold machine-gun ammo (which seemed the most effective against Big Daddies for me).

So is it worth buying if you haven't already? Yes. Just to see what a really brilliantly designed world looks like. Would I play it again? You know, a few days ago I would've said no but it's been a while since I played it and to be honest, I probably wouldn't mind having just another go. You know, just to make sure I found everything.

But despite all the promises from Ken Levine, BioShock is very clearly "an action shooter set in the BioShock universe". It's just that the universe is a pretty cool place to muck around in and the shooting could probably do with some work.

View more BioShock screenshots in the gallery.

There are 20 comments on A long-winded rant about BioShock

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