Bioshock

"Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his own brow?" - Andrew Ryan

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I'm sure you'll be positively shocked to know that I am about to pen yet another among many glowing Bioshock reviews that shamelessly heap mountains of praise on Irrational Games – I reject the new 2K Boston branding for the time being – but, that's exactly what I'm about to do.

Bioshock is good, maybe great, maybe eventually an all-time classic. It's far too soon to crown those latter qualities simply as a matter of principle, but the words dance at my fingertips aching to be let loose in a flood of feel-good hyperbole. Bioshock is worth its sixty dollar price tag within the first few levels, and the rest of the game is the icing on the cake if you eat cakes with nineteen layers of icing. Relax, I'm not going to spoil any plot points for you, but in the interest of objectivity I am going to offer a few points of criticism to be considered along with the carnival parade of deserved and endless praise being doled out apparently by the entire internet. But throughout the entire exercise it is important to keep in mind that this game is a sublimely fun work of seemingly unlimited creativity.

I have spent some unknown time so far with Bioshock, certainly more than fifteen hours and probably less than twenty. Truth be told, time had no meaning in Rapture, the crumbling underwater city in which the game takes place, and when creeping slowly through the tainted utopia with its denizens of excess and violence I've got better things to be doing than running a stopwatch. I have not quite completed the game, but have plumbed its twisting and deceptive depths enough to know that I'm playing something pretty remarkable. I suspected this was so within the first ten minutes as Rapture revealed itself against the murky depths, but I gave the game a few hours to really beat me over the head with its persistent excellence before concluding with some certainty that Bioshock was not going to be a game that started big and then pushed the player down a long slow slide of disappointment. I'm looking at you Doom III.

For fans of Irrational's previous critical success, System Shock 2, Bioshock will be filled with familiar mechanics and styles. Replace Psi with Plasmids, tone down the RPG elements and replace the icy-cool interiors of the Von Braun with an absolutely stunning environment of jaw-dropping art-deco detail and life, and you'll feel right at home. The parallels between the two games are many, but Bioshock offers a familiar framework both in narrative style and play elements without feeling repetitious. Remarkably, this is a more fun game to play than System Shock 2, which shouldn't be too terribly surprising considering the eight years Irrational stewed on the concept. Bioshock offers the same depth of world and uncomfortable tension but wraps it in the much tighter frame of a more traditional shooter without becoming trite.

The game does put a lot of strength into traditional firepower, and early plasmids, think of them as genetic magic, are best used in conjunction with the arsenal of weapons rather than as a primary offense. Plasmids offer some good tactical spice to the mix, but if you're expecting them to replace physical and chemical munitions, then prepare to be slightly disappointed. Fortunately the game puts a lot of alternatives at your disposal for dealing death, and something has to be said about hacking native turrets, security cameras and bots to your advantage and simply watching the relentless delivery of automated carnage. The hacking process is a straightforward mini-game that can be exciting at times but eventually becomes a little tedious considering how very very much you will be inclined to do it. The benefits of hacking are too good to resist, but the frequency with which you will be doing it might occasionally leave you wishing you were shooting at something instead.

Trust me, though, when you face-down an angry, well-armored Big Daddy protecting his Little Sister charge, you'll forget all about any hacking tedium. These battles are a centerpiece conflict of smoothly increasing difficulty available several times per level, and right into the later levels of the game when my comfort level has smoothed out against most other foes, my palms still get a little sweaty when I fire the first shot turning the behemoth's otherwise passive demeanor into that of a massive killing machine with a gun in one hand and a terrifying drill in the other. The Big Daddy may, in fact, be one of the more interesting foes offered in any shooter, most often found passively watching over the Little Sisters as they dispatch their macabre duties, their whale-like moans echoing hollowly. They are a sad character in many ways, and unlike the Splicers, which I take no shortage of pleasure in killing off, enacting violence on the Big Daddy is almost regretful. And, when you have dispatched the Little Sisters from the level, and the Big Daddys remain, mournfully searching the hallways for their tiny partners, banging on the walls and calling out for them in deep low tones, you may just feel something like sadness for them. When that happens, remind yourself that you're playing a video game and how often have you felt like that playing other games?

Victory over Big Daddy offers the central choice of the game, what to do with the Little Sister he had been protecting. Unfortunately the choice is the same every time, and tragically there aren't more moral decisions to be made with the rest of the game which generally forces you through its strict narrative. In fact, while the game does offer you the freedom to move through levels at your own pace, the story points are traditionally linear and until you hit plot point location X you won't move forward. The player has very little influence over how the story plays out, and only the repeated choice of what to do with the Little Sisters is offered to add moral free-will to the equation. Though, the game does offer an eventual concession on this point of linearity, which one can think of as the water with which to swallow down the somewhat bitter pill.

Though the first few decisions over the Little Sisters are poignant and even moving, eventually it becomes mechanical. You know what you're going to do when you get there, and you've done it enough times that you've become accustomed to the result. I find myself a little at conflict here with my expectations, a common problem for our own particular breed of hobby, having hoped for a little more of this kind of moral conflict, or at least some variety to the single repeated choice, but I'm on record as having said that increasing complexity of moral choice builds to seeming infinite complexity on the design end, so I grudgingly understand.

Besides, it's really not a point I'm terribly interested in belaboring, considering how well crafted the rest of the story is. Again, in a nod back to System Shock 2, much of the tale of Rapture's rise and fall is told through audio diaries found littered throughout the city, and characters become defined by the way others perceived them. Those still alive and sane enough to interact directly with you, moving the story forward in its present tense, become more complex as you measure their words and deeds against what others have left behind.

It's difficult to talk in detail about the story without risking giving too much away. Not surprisingly the game echoes a number of themes, building on questions of the conflict between moral absolution and the authority of man to act on his own desires. Rapture is a city in conflict not just between warring factions who seek to hold the city for their own ends, but in conflict over the question of how free is a person to act out his desires if he crafts those desires in the name of progress or art. Bioshock offers us a glimpse at paradise lost through the actions of the artist who paints in death, the surgeon who reconceives the beauty of man, the geneticist unchecked by the laws of man or nature and the entrepreneur who prizes industry and invention over empathy and charity. But, you don't have to look that deep to enjoy Bioshock. It doesn't require you to look past more than the surface story, to consider the subtleties of the story. If you turned the story off entirely, it would still be an engaging action shooter with a rich, often creepy setting.

The real hallmark of Bioshock, as with many great narrative games of the past, is its unpredictability. Let others speak endlessly on the voice acting, the mechanics of gameplay, the stunning Unreal powered engine and the technical minutia which must be atteneded, and yes this game is AAA in each of those important points, but that's not what drives me forward. For me, the unpredictable nature of enemy AI, narrative, level design and opportunity urged me on throughout. I never knew what to expect in the next room, never cynically predicted what the theme for the next level would be, never found the perfect tactic for dealing with my enemies and most important never knew precisely what secrets Rapture hid until I uncovered the last clue. It is a remarkable thing, playing a game that does not fall into the natural track of stereotype and cliché; a remarkable thing to feel like I'm enjoying a unique gaming experience and one that would not be precisely duplicated were I to play it again.

In the end, what can be said about Bioshock that hasn't already been said? Not much, and I realize that my comments serve less to inform as to reinforce. This game is outstanding, and if we're still talking about it in eight years, then color me unsurprised. If you own an Xbox 360 or a PC, then there's simply no viable excuse for not rushing out to pick up the game. It is a must-own, a system-seller, an automatic game-of-the-year candidate, and other such bite-sized, box-worthy, quotes. It's an uncommon pleasure when a company meets or exceeds the lofty expectations of a demanding fan base, so I'm happy to offer credit where credit is due. Bioshock is simply the best single player game I've played in years.

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Elysium wrote:

They are a sad character in many ways...enacting violence on the Big Daddy is almost regretful. And, when you have dispatched the Little Sisters from the level, and the Big Daddys remain, mournfully searching the hallways for their tiny partners, banging on the walls and calling out for them in deep low tones, you may just feel something like sadness for them.

Jeez, and here I thought I was the only one...

If Halo 3 wins game of the year in places vs BioShock, I'm gonna be pissed.

locdog wrote:
Elysium wrote:

They are a sad character in many ways...enacting violence on the Big Daddy is almost regretful. And, when you have dispatched the Little Sisters from the level, and the Big Daddys remain, mournfully searching the hallways for their tiny partners, banging on the walls and calling out for them in deep low tones, you may just feel something like sadness for them.

Jeez, and here I thought I was the only one...

Yeah, and am I the only one making a connection between Bioshock and Dwarf Fortress for this very reason? I can't think of any other games I have played recently that managed to pull this off. I wouldn't necessarily feel compelled to comment on it, but my little ASCII dwarves losing beloved pets deep inside a 2-D cave and the gorgeously rendered Big Daddies losing their "daughters" in a dystopic 3-D underwater world...those experiences are shelved next to one another in my mental library now.

Thanks for the review, Elysium.

There is a real underlying sense of tragedy in the whole place. I think you've nailed it, and nobody else has that I've read. The reason the game sings to me is the same reason Hamlet does -- because it engages you while you know, all the time, how horribly wrong it all is. Every creature -- from the most lucid to the most inanimate -- positively aches with pathos, even as they seek to gut, stomp, or explode you.

Spoiler wrote:

[color=white]And if you want creepy, wait until you find the guys singing "Jesus loves me."[/color]

Mordiceius wrote:

If Halo 3 wins game of the year in places vs BioShock, I'm gonna be pissed.

Games like Unreal Tournament and EverQuest were given Game of the Year 1999 awards over System Shock 2. Certainly won't be shocked to see Halo 3 win over BioShock.

Elysium wrote:

And, when you have dispatched the Little Sisters from the level, and the Big Daddys remain, mournfully searching the hallways for their tiny partners, banging on the walls and calling out for them in deep low tones, you may just feel something like sadness for them. When that happens, remind yourself that you're playing a video game and how often have you felt like that playing other games?

Yes it is poignant. But for me, the plaintive cries of the little sisters tug even harder at my heart-strings when I've dispatched a Big Daddy. "Please get up Mr. Bubbles...PLEASE..."

Ahh that gets me every time. I actually feel guilty for killing the thing, even though I know it is for the best.

I haven't had a game move me like this one does (in this example and others as well) for years and years.

Great write-up Ely.

Elysium says to Rabbit spoiler: You think that's bad, just wait until ... aw, you'll see.

*Legion* wrote:
Mordiceius wrote:

If Halo 3 wins game of the year in places vs BioShock, I'm gonna be pissed.

Games like Unreal Tournament and EverQuest were given Game of the Year 1999 awards over System Shock 2. Certainly won't be shocked to see Halo 3 win over BioShock.

I hate MMO's and love System Shock 2, but I can see where Everquest was the better game all things considered. Sometimes you just get more than one super fantastic game in a year, and that's a cause for celebration rather than woe.

You can't really argue the worth of the binary moral choices without having played the whole game or without giving away too much. It's like a gaming commentary DMZ.

This is really the sort of game you hope the entire gaming community will celebrate as it's remarkable - Random Sports Title 2008 it's not.

It's the kind of game where you don't begrudge the purchase price - for me, I kinda want to send them more money as a thank you for caring

MikeMac wrote:

This is really the sort of game you hope the entire gaming community will celebrate as it's remarkable - Random Sports Title 2008 it's not.

It's the kind of game where you don't begrudge the purchase price - for me, I kinda want to send them more money as a thank you for caring :)

Yeah I know just what you mean. Most of us realize deep down that Halo 3 will sell more copies and overshadow BioShock in a few weeks, but I can't imagine any game more deserving of Game of the Year. Picked up the PC and 360 versions. PC with widescreen is flatout gorgeous, but the 360 one seems more comfortable for long gaming sessions.

Now if the Levine team could start work on a new Thief title...

MikeMac wrote:

It's the kind of game where you don't begrudge the purchase price - for me, I kinda want to send them more money as a thank you for caring :)

Agreed. Haven't felt that way about a game since Deus Ex. (And haven't been so pissed at a purchase price since Deus Ex 2: The Dumbening.)

Danjo Olivaw wrote:

You can't really argue the worth of the binary moral choices without having played the whole game or without giving away too much. It's like a gaming commentary DMZ.

Haven't played it through quite yet, but I wonder if the real moral choice behind the little sisters is the choice to kill her big daddy in the first place. The game forces you to ponder this by causing you to confront the consequences of your decision in such a dramatic way:

Uberstein wrote:

But for me, the plaintive cries of the little sisters tug even harder at my heart-strings when I've dispatched a Big Daddy. "Please get up Mr. Bubbles...PLEASE..."

What you choose to do with the little sister after seems like compassion either way. I find this more than a little exploitative. Uberstein says it's for the greater good. That's probably true, but we're playing with a stacked deck. We're playing in a universe where the self-improvement necessary to ultimately triumph over evil or whatever can only be attained through killing. Which is why Deus Ex, for me at least, still gets the nod over Bioshock.

I reserve the right to act like a complete hypocrite later, however, as I'm probably only halfway through.

Danjo Olivaw wrote:

I hate MMO's and love System Shock 2, but I can see where Everquest was the better game all things considered.

I don't. Larger impact on gaming as a whole? Sure. One of the earliest successes of a very compelling concept (MMO gaming)? No question. But a better game? They don't call it "Rat Hunter 3D" for nothing.

GameSpot's review summed it up nice: "EverQuest is the best game in its class. At the same time, it is loaded with problems."

locdog wrote:

What you choose to do with the little sister after seems like compassion either way. I find this more than a little exploitative. Uberstein says it's for the greater good. That's probably true, but we're playing with a stacked deck. We're playing in a universe where the self-improvement necessary to ultimately triumph over evil or whatever can only be attained through killing. Which is why Deus Ex, for me at least, still gets the nod over Bioshock.

I reserve the right to act like a complete hypocrite later, however, as I'm probably only halfway through.

I'm starting to see the Little Sisters as, which way IS the more compassionate? I kill them, which is horrible, or I rescue them for ..
What?
To keep living in Rapture? To die later? What kind of future are you giving them by leaving them alive?

Disclaimer: I am so not very far in this, I've not gotten much actual story.

I'm starting to see the Little Sisters as, which way IS the more compassionate? I kill them, which is horrible, or I rescue them for ..
What?
To keep living in Rapture? To die later? What kind of future are you giving them by leaving them alive?

I have to wonder if sparing them, which is what i've been doing so far, isn't going to come back and bite me in the ass later. Who knows what ms. nazi doctor has in mind for the LSs.

Note I don't find that dilemma unfair, however. Life is full of such choices. You're a soldier at a checkpoint. A child is running toward you. You're yelling for him to stop, but he ignores you. Is he carrying a grenade? If you kill him, you might save your life and those of your friends, or you might be shedding innocent blood. Your choice depends on knowledge you cannot have until after you make it. Sort of a grim comparison, but I've heard of things like that happening.

MikeMac wrote:

It's the kind of game where you don't begrudge the purchase price - for me, I kinda want to send them more money as a thank you for caring :)

Ken Levine wrote:

What people think about your game is really relevant. Because at the end of the day they're the one taking the 60 bucks out of their wallet to buy he damned thing.

Plus, I don't really think Ken's gonna be hard up for the cash. I think he's going to win the "weighing sacks of excess cash" contest vs. CliffyB at next years "king sh*t name-above-the-title game designers christmas party."

*Legion* wrote:
Mordiceius wrote:

If Halo 3 wins game of the year in places vs BioShock, I'm gonna be pissed.

Games like Unreal Tournament and EverQuest were given Game of the Year 1999 awards over System Shock 2. Certainly won't be shocked to see Halo 3 win over BioShock.

Of course, now-a-days, Game of the Year awards are a dime a dozen. If Halo 3 is good enough to actually warrant being awarded, the I'm sure some sites/magazines will give it to it, and some will give it to BioShock. Lets not forget that Mass Effect, Metroid Prime 3, and Mario are all coming out also. I'm sure each of these could potentially draw some GotY nods also.

What a wonderful year for gaming!

I have no issues harvesting the little sisters. I am actually the same with my feeling for the BD's, I feel more sorry for them.

I think my biggest complaint so far is the size of the levels.. it still very much feels like a corridor romp rather than someplace where people lived, eat, worked, and played. Now perhaps this was on purpose to build a more claustrophobic atmosphere or the fact that large open spaces wouldnt really be a reality that far under the water.. but unlike Deus Ex which had some levels that were wide open and fairly large allowing for more exploration and ways around dealing with various things.. Bioshock feels more like Deus Ex "2" (not that extreme though in level size) in terms of how the levels are laid out and your approach to "overcoming" obstacles.

Still an awesome game though.. I'm trying to go slowly so I can enjoy it as much as possible before its all over.

*Legion* wrote:

Games like Unreal Tournament and EverQuest were given Game of the Year 1999 awards over System Shock 2. Certainly won't be shocked to see Halo 3 win over BioShock.

SS2 didn't have near the marketing or hype that Bioshock has received.

Why Xbox.. why..... why must you be broken and in the process of being shipped out when this comes out... damn you....

I stopped reading after third reply as people started dropping serious spoilers about gameplay. I'm somewhat cool on this game due to all the hype and a what I percieve to be its genre. Which is where my question comes in: is this a horror game? How would it compare to for example HL2 in scare your pants off department?

Not only is Bioshock a technical achievement in visual and level design but its an original, compelling narrative. That's what makes it so refreshing for me. Underwater Art-Deco utopian society gone bad? That's something I want to explore.

MoonDragon wrote:

I stopped reading after third reply as people started dropping serious spoilers about gameplay. I'm somewhat cool on this game due to all the hype and a what I percieve to be its genre. Which is where my question comes in: is this a horror game? How would it compare to for example HL2 in scare your pants off department?

Scarier (with the possible exception of Ravenholm). But it's not Silent Hill gamplay. Most often, you have a way to deal with whatever jumps out at you. It has tense set pieces but you go into them well armed.

So far, the only thing that exceeded my Bioshock experience is this Elysium's review of it. I am still astounded (and somewhat saddened) by the fact that Ely isn't writing for some major news outlet.

I mean, take a look at what passes for a review at MSNBC, or USA Today. Using Ely's own words (on an unrelated matter), their "reviews" are a crayon scribble on Chili's kids menu.

It must be a blessing (to us) and a curse (to him) to pen stuff for us the unwashed instead.

Bah, I'd have to go through some crappy editorial process with them. As always I'd rather be happy and run my own business than miserable and rich.

Actually, I'd rather be rich and run my own business, but I can be patient.

Great Article Elysium

I agree fully with your thoughts on Bioshock.

Trashie wrote:

Most often, you have a way to deal with whatever jumps out at you. It has tense set pieces but you go into them well armed.

Not that you have to, thanks to Vita-Chambers. Who here has spent five minutes taking down a Bouncer with nothing but a wrench, no plasmids or health packs used? (Looks around nervously, hesitantly raises hand)

Hans

hidannik wrote:
Trashie wrote:

Most often, you have a way to deal with whatever jumps out at you. It has tense set pieces but you go into them well armed.

Not that you have to, thanks to Vita-Chambers. Who here has spent five minutes taking down a Bouncer with nothing but a wrench, no plasmids or health packs used? (Looks around nervously, hesitantly raises hand)

Hans

In a moment of bravado i reorganized my plasmids/tonics to boost my wrench abilities and went up behind one and gave it a whack. After exiting the Vita-Chamber i went back and put my plasmids/tonics back in order.

Danjo Olivaw wrote:

well stated comments about Little Sisters and binary moral choices.

People aren't speaking about this for good reason, their fate is tied to Bioshock's excellent if totally linear plot. The mechanical structure of these choices is no different than Bioware's KotOR. Ken Levine can get away with that if the story is good, which it is.

Trashie wrote:

Scarier (with the possible exception of Ravenholm). But it's not Silent Hill gamplay. Most often, you have a way to deal with whatever jumps out at you. It has tense set pieces but you go into them well armed.

I actually don't find Ravenholm scary. Just very, very annoying. Every time I play through HL2 I wish I could just skip it. For some strange reason I do not share everybody else's fascination with zombies. And the blatant attempts at trying to scare me causes nothing but frustration with the game. Kind of reminds me of the first Thief game I played. I absolutely adored the game, until I walked into a mine shaft and found... zombies. At that point the game was uninstalled and never touched again.

I played System Shock 2. I found it interesting, but the zombies and such just got too annoying and I never finished the game. From what I read on Bioshock, I'd actually be interested in the story it has to tell, but I don't want to pick it up if I'm going to drop it 30 mins into the game because the game cannot get over the the jack-in-the-box attempts at scaring me. That was cute and got a rise out of me when I was 3. Today, I find the games that do that to be comparable to a friend that walks down the street with you and then runs off until you can't see him, only to jump out of a bush or from around the corner yelling "BOO!" The first few times it would be entertaining, but after 20th time it would start getting on my nerves.

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