Friday, February 15, 2013

BioShock - A Man Chooses, A Slave Obeys

In 2007, Irrational games released a first-person shooter called BioShock, a spiritual successor to the System Shock 2 video game by the same developer, onto the Xbox 360 and PC platforms to critical acclaim and wide retail success. It was praised for its unique setting, immersion and stellar campaign. While other video games have yet to copy it outright, there are still some subtle influences that can be found within gaming today, particularly its atmosphere of uncertainty. With the long-awaited BioShock Infinite finally on the horizon, I felt that now would be a good time to replay and share my opinions of both the PS3 port of the original, done by Digital Extremes, and the direct sequel, BioShock 2. Since it's been a while since I played the original multiple times, I still found myself enjoying it, but I've also started to notice a little aging and a couple of other problems.

The game, which takes place in 1960, famously begins with Jack aboard a plane as it crashes into the ocean. As the lone survivor, he spots a lighthouse and heads toward it, for it is the only dry land that can be seen for miles in the night sky. Once inside, the lights flicker on and display a welcoming banner above a small flight of stairs. Jack goes down and notices a bathysphere; with no other option before him, he enters the bathysphere and travels downward several fathoms. A video display from a projector appears before him as the voice of a man named Andrew Ryan explains that where he's going is the secret underwater city known as Rapture, a place where Man can create and make scientific advancements without any interference. When the bathysphere finally docks however, Jack quickly learns that what was once a Utopia has now fallen hard from grace. A man named Atlas contacts him on radio and offers Jack some assistance as now one thing becomes clear, the only way out now is to get through the tyrannical Andrew Ryan himself.

Even after five, going on six, years, the story still feels very well-written and executed. It's actually really interesting to go through a city built entirely upon the capitalist (read: objectivist) philosophy and find out just how it all fell apart, primarily due to everything being privatized as a result of a distinct lack of government restriction. I also like how some important details are told through recorded messages that can be found throughout the world to allow a view of the dystopian devolution from the eyes of someone else while still allowing the player to follow the plot line if they don't find that many of them. The story of the present that Jack experiences has very good pacing and gives the player the proper motivation to strive forward and reach their ultimate goal. When the big climax hits, there is sense of satisfaction in what Jack has accomplished and a very surprising twist turns the game on its head and causes the player to look back at their actions in a different light. Not to give too much away, but a major deconstruction of free will and player choice was pulled off rather brilliantly and gives the player something to really think about when they go through another game. This moment helps the game truly stand out as a masterwork and a testament to video game storytelling.

The very first glimpse of Rapture in the game: the city's atheist beliefs.

And then, just like John Galt from Atlas Shrugged, it doesn't know when to shut up. After a very fitting climax in the office of Andrew Ryan, yet another twist presents itself as still an opportunity to let the game end on a powerful note. However, this twist leads to another set of levels that last at least as long as a real life reading of the aforementioned John Galt's infamous speech. During this time, there aren't any real additions to gameplay since every type of enemy and weapon has already been seen by the player and any changes can only come from the level design. I'll admit that there are some interesting level layouts, mainly a large, fully explorable hotel complex, and finding out a little more information about Yi Suchong and Brigid Tennenbaum led to some rather interesting revelations. However, in the grand scheme of things, these last few hours consist of a bit of unnecessary backtracking and a long setup for an annoying escort mission. To top it all off, the final boss is a complete joke and the end result feels cartoonish and out of place. One could make the case that this final act helps to resolve everything in the game, but I would say that cutting the game off at Andrew Ryan's office would have helped make the ending more powerful and at least prevented the game from stepping into the same pitfalls as countless other video games. Someone out there will like it, but even a few years ago I was waiting for the game to finally end; my disinterest just became stronger with every play through.

While the story has a length issue for me, I have a different opinion regarding the gameplay, namely that it's absolutely fantastic. Along with wielding up to eight different weapons in his right hand, Jack is also able to use the abilities of various Plasmids throughout the game with his left. Plasmids allow Jack to do many things, ranging from shooting electricity or fire to the power of telekinesis. These abilities take up EVE, which can only be replenished through the use of an EVE Hypo found or purchased within the world. Then there are Gene Tonics, which can enhance Jack's physical, combat or engineering abilities with genetic tweaks such as generating a field of electricity when struck, reduced hacking difficulty or faster movement speed among many, many others. Plasmids and Gene Tonics can either be found in the environment or purchased at a Gatherer's Garden by using ADAM obtained from Little Sisters, which can also be used to give Jack more slots for these abilities or increase his Health and EVE stores.

The main enemies of the game are Splicers, residents of Rapture who abused genetic splicing for Plasmids and Gene Tonics to the point of physical and psychological disfigurement. Different types of Splicers are introduced at a good rate and require some variance in strategy to defeat. Researching them with the Research Camera can lead to some interesting bonuses, like increased damage against them or using hearts as First Aid Kits. Fighting both Splicers and Big Daddies, the ones who protect the Little Sisters, requires Jack to use some creative combination of his Plasmids and weapons to full effectiveness by exploiting their weaknesses and even using the environment to your advantage. In this sense, the combat system is one of the most impressive in the genre and future games would only continue to improve on this sort of combination attack.

A Houdini Splicer about to attack Jack

Pretending those advancements haven't happened yet, the game does a pretty good job on its own to encourage experimentation. I can guarantee that you'll find a combination that is comfortable and suits your playstyle, especially since the weapons feature multiple ammo types and have their own strengths and weaknesses. I can also guarantee that there will be at least one or two weapons you may never use for one reason or another, though I must say that once you discover how effective the Electro Bolt Plasmid and pseudo-upgraded Wrench (which I dub the "God Wrench") are together, your willingness to experiment may dwindle a bit. This doesn't prevent combat from getting truly chaotic, since in all likelihood you'll come across a battle that goes on in all 360 degrees as you attempt to keep track of it all. One thing that probably holds it back a little, depending on who you ask, would be the Vita-Chamber system, which ensures that death is a slap on the wrist. If you die, you'll come back to life at the nearest Vita-Chamber with most of your health and EVE intact, but enemies will retain the damage that they sustained before your untimely demise. I think that sometimes it helped to alleviate frustration in a particularly difficult fight, but on the other hand it was also capable of removing the tension from fighting a powerful Big Daddy. In essence, there are times you'll feel like a god, but others still where your obstacles instead feel like more of a nuisance.

To get lower prices at vending machines or get the city on your side, pretty much anything mechanical can be hacked through a mini-game where the player has to rearrange pipes to get liquid from one end to another. At first it feels designed well enough to stretch the player's brain with a unique puzzle mechanic. However, this task is eventually done to such extent as to become monotonous and frustrating. What doesn't help is that it is possible for the pipes and tiles, which must be revealed by the way, to be arranged in such a way as to render a puzzle completely impossible. Thankfully this can be circumvented with an Automatic Hack Tool or by having enough money on hand. Speaking of money, I have a minor annoyance in that there is clearly room for four digits, yet you can only hold a maximum of $500. Why this is so, I have no clue.

The hacking mini-game (when the game decides not to hate your guts).

One point of high praise that I can give this game would be its graphics and overall atmosphere. Everything is rendered very clearly and it's easy to navigate around the city of Rapture thanks to some rather distinct locales. Though some areas will feel the same after a while, there's no doubt that the dev team put a lot of work into mapping out the underwater city to feel realistically constructed and memorable. The mixture of bright colors and dark lighting help lend the environments some genuine tension and potentially a fear of the unknown. This heavy atmosphere is BioShock's greatest strength and helps the underwater world be more unique.

Of course, I also need to briefly discuss the morality elements this game has, mainly its sole mechanic of rescuing or harvesting Little Sisters. Your choices with them determine the ending that you'll get, with opportunity for some replay value to try and see the three different endings. Personally I got the Good ending, which is something that I tend to get anyway whenever there are moral choices in a game. Although this choice feels very black and white, this mechanic also determines your rate of ADAM gain. Harvesting nets you an instant 160 ADAM, while rescuing only gives you 80. However, for every three Little Sisters you save, you'll also receive an additional 200 ADAM as a gift the next time you visit a Gatherer's Garden, which brings a net gain of 440 ADAM for waiting as opposed to a quick and dirty 480. In a sense, the morality choice seems to play off the player's greed, which is actually an interesting way of trying to handle it.

You're going to see the ins and outs of this thing a lot.

Finally, the sounds of this game are really well done. There are some great casting choices for the characters that do speak and while there isn't really much of an original score, since a lot of the game is realistically silent, when it does appear it's pretty good and matches the tonality of the scene. The licensed music that does play through turntables and jukeboxes is also rather interesting. This selections fits the 1960 time period perfectly and is consistent with the visual styles of the advertisements and the technology that can be found all over the game. If it weren't for the music, the game may not be as believable.

Overall, BioShock is a very good First-Person Shooter. Though the story could have easily been shortened, the combat is solidly constructed and the city of Rapture is very unique with graphics and music that help it live and breathe as its own entity. I would easily recommend this game to anyone looking for a uniquely dark and enjoyable game. Even if you don't agree with the praises it has received in the last five to six years, you'll still be glad that you played it, even if it has aged just a little. Now I'd like to see if my opinion of BioShock 2 has changed at all since I last played it years ago.

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