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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Comments

I wouldn't hold up Psychonauts as an example of incredibly innovative game design. Where Bioshock sticks to its FPS roots and adds a stellar narrative, Psychonauts sticks to its platformer roots and adds humor.

Okami I haven't played, but from what I've heard it's a Zelda game for Zelda fans by Zelda fans.

Though I'm about to point out what I think is a design flaw in BioShock, it should not be taken as a major complaint or an indication that I don't like the game; indeed, I'm still on a quest to find out how many times I can play it through in different ways before it gets old. Right now I'm thinking four or five. At the moment - at least until the first infatuation wears off - it's my favorite game of all time, and I've been gaming for over twenty-five years.

Earlier in this thread 0kelvin made some comments about Vita-Chambers being a game design mistake in BioShock, and we proceeded to have a discussion. Now, while continuing to disagree about Vita-Chambers, I'd like to make an alternative suggestion. The mistake is not in the Vita-Chambers, but in health packs.

As was recently pointed out over on Slashdot, Halo revolutionized the pacing and rhythm of shooters by introducing the recharging shield to a mass market. Halo 2 went further by eliminating health-packs entirely, a move that was followed by many games since, including Gears of War and Rainbow Six: Vegas.

Instead of retreating from the field of battle entirely and hunting for health packs, one could stay in the battle area and simply take cover until health recharged. This meant that battles flowed more smoothly, with the action never really stopping.

It also meant that the game designers could make enemies tougher, more numerous, and more damaging, since doing so wouldn't force the player to go hunting health packs.

Before Halo, designers could either make health packs plentiful, in which case the game would be too easy, or make them rare, in which case battles would suffer very frequent interruption. The right balance would vary depending on player skill and style, and in any case would simply be trying to minimize the combined amount of boredom and interruption.

And this is the situation with BioShock, with the designers opting for plentiful health packs. I rarely have fewer than seven in my inventory. Maybe there are fewer on Hard difficulty which I haven't tried yet, but even if so it just switches the problem from the game being too easy to the battles suffering frequent interruption for medkit searches.

I find this puzzling, particularly in light of one of the developer interviews, where a developer said that after the Hunting the Big Daddy demo, in which a battle involved a lot of action and NPC interaction all going on at once, the producer asked the developers to make the game like that all the time. Such continuous action would favor the use of recharging health rather than medkits, I'd think. Not only that, but recharging health fits just as well if not better into the game mythos and storyline.

I both agree and disagree on the healthpack thing. I will say that I prefere a gears-like system for health, and that I like to have at least one ranged ability that isn't ammo dependent. Imagine if, say, shock, was Eve-Free, and if you could do a duck-and-recharge as a plasmid slot. The game would be very, very different.

Better? I dunno. I'd love to play that game and see. The current game makes you REALLY think about getting hit, and REALLY think about conserving ammo and eve. I like that. It's frustrating as hell, but its what keeps it from being a run-and-gun.

And Shihonage -- it's all good baby.

rabbit wrote:

Imagine if, say, shock, was Eve-Free, and if you could do a duck-and-recharge as a plasmid slot. The game would be very, very different.

I thought of that too, but then I wanted a plasmid that recharged Eve as well :).

Actually, recharging health and Eve would suit me just fine. I just played the demo for TimeShift, and it has both recharging health and recharging "magic". The flow was good; I had to watch my meters, but never had to take my mind off the battle at hand.

Hans

I know people don't think Bioshock is innovative in gameplay but i think we'd all agree that it is evolutionary in story and presentation of that story.

As for the 10/10 thing (i know i mentioned my view before though this is slightly different), the goalposts move constantly. There is no such thing as a perfect anything however a 10/10 rating doesn't mean that the item is the ultimate, the epitomy of whatever it is grouped into. The rating compares it with other previous entries in the group that it relates to. IMO, Bioshock is a 10/10 on most scales in comparison with any other offering in the first person shooter genre. It won't be 10/10 in comparison with the next genre defining game but at the moment it was released and reviewed it is/was the pinnacle of FPS gaming. I can't think of another game that comes close to having all its parts link so well together - even with the few faults the game has.

Halo, Deus Ex, System Shock, Jedi Knight 2, Half Life 2 all have more failings than i feel Bioshock does and thus, overall, it supercedes them.

So far, Bioshock is the only game i've ever played were i felt completely immersed in the world - it felt like i was playing a part in a film without ever having read my lines or seeing the script. It's what i want out of single player campaigns. Gameplay mechanics, while important, aren't the ultimate aspect of a single player game. Multiplayer is defined by gameplay, nothing else. This is perhaps the area that - if Bioshock had attempted it - would have pulled Bioshock from a 10/10 rating.

On the 10/10 issue...

I think in general, the more jaded you get as a reviewer, the more you'll encourage innovation. And the video game industry needs this encouragement. It won't survive much longer if we keep giving 10/10's to really, really awesome FPS's. Because to the average non-gaming consumer, it's just another dark, bloody shooter.

BioShock is an awesome game. But I'd give it an 8/10 at best. Look at IMDB - the best movies are 8/10. It's just a matter of perception (which is important in entertainment). Giving games 10/10 implies, "OK game industry, this is perfection. Now, go and copy it and you'll be just fine!" But give it an 8/10, and it's more like, "OK this is pretty damn good - good job, Irrational! But, you can do even more amazing stuff with this young and largely unexplored medium! Godspeed!"

stevesan wrote:

On the 10/10 issue...

I think in general, the more jaded you get as a reviewer, the more you'll encourage innovation. And the video game industry needs this encouragement. It won't survive much longer if we keep giving 10/10's to really, really awesome FPS's. Because to the average non-gaming consumer, it's just another dark, bloody shooter.

BioShock is an awesome game. But I'd give it an 8/10 at best. Look at IMDB - the best movies are 8/10. It's just a matter of perception (which is important in entertainment). Giving games 10/10 implies, "OK game industry, this is perfection. Now, go and copy it and you'll be just fine!" But give it an 8/10, and it's more like, "OK this is pretty damn good - good job, Irrational! But, you can do even more amazing stuff with this young and largely unexplored medium! Godspeed!"

I agree and both disagree.. since I've now talked to two non-gamers that keep asking me about Bioshock.. so obviously something is working..

If Bioshock which you say is "at best" an 8/10 or a B game.. so realistically your thinking its a C or C+ game.. spawns more B grade games that are as good as Bioshock then I think we're in great shape.. not sure what the problem with that is.

But I agree with your Movies statement.. now that movies are largely an older established medium.. the reviewers have seen more and thus are more critical.

TheGameguru wrote:

But I agree with your Movies statement.. now that movies are largely an older established medium.. the reviewers have seen more and thus are more critical.

Yeah, it's true. I mean, how many seminal FPS games do we have for the last 15 years?

DOOM
Duke Nukem 3D
Quake
Unreal
Half Life
Thief
System Shock 2
AvP (1 or 2)
Rainbow 6
Jedi Knight (1 or 2)
Half Life 1 and 2
Halo
Ghost Recon
Bioshock

I think i would pick 3 games from that list: Half life 1, 2 and Bioshock. The others were all great but were lacking in certain aspects more so than those three (which aren't perfect by any means), IMO. I know it's a cliché but until we're had our share of Citizen Canes, Bladerunners and Sound of Musics we'll never have anything nearing a decent review scale.

Duoae wrote:
TheGameguru wrote:

But I agree with your Movies statement.. now that movies are largely an older established medium.. the reviewers have seen more and thus are more critical.

Yeah, it's true. I mean, how many seminal FPS games do we have for the last 15 years?

DOOM
Duke Nukem 3D
Quake
Unreal
Half Life
Thief
System Shock 2
AvP (1 or 2)
Rainbow 6
Jedi Knight (1 or 2)
Half Life 1 and 2
Halo
Ghost Recon
Bioshock

I think i would pick 3 games from that list: Half life 1, 2 and Bioshock. The others were all great but were lacking in certain aspects more so than those three (which aren't perfect by any means), IMO. I know it's a cliché but until we're had our share of Citizen Canes, Bladerunners and Sound of Musics we'll never have anything nearing a decent review scale.

I'll forgive your snub of Deus Ex on that list..

This one time.

LOL, *slaps forehead* Yeah, i always forget that game because i never played it... only remembered unreal because i used the word in another thread...

[edit] Acutally, you've given me an idea for a thread.... many thanks...

stevesan wrote:

BioShock is an awesome game. But I'd give it an 8/10 at best. Look at IMDB - the best movies are 8/10.

That's only because IMDB is an aggregate of votes. The 8's are a combination of people who will vote 10/10 for everything and a few people who vote 1/10 for everything. Anything in between is probably statistical noise.

Having just completed Bioshock and seen the "good" ending, I wonder if it hasn't been benefiting from the Great Ending Syndrome, where even mediocre movies can leave you leaving the cinema feeling elated if their endings are strong enough. I really thought that ending was totally wonderful: humane, satisfying and touching. I think a bunch of the reviewers decided on the score right after seeing it.

Nah, although the ending was good - as others have said in the other bioshock spoiler thread - it's nowhere near as good as the middle of the game.

I think the obsession over the cultural semantics of a 10/10 score is unhealthy. IMHO, a critique of the game should concenrtrate on telling you what the game is like to *play*, not providing some arbitrary relative indication of the game's ultimate value.

What is great about Bioshock is how it compels you to play the game in a particular style while giving you the tools to be creative in that context. The game simply wills you not to play it as a straight up shooter, or even as a straight up guns+magic powers game. It does this by giving you other tactical tools (stealth, hacking the turrets, etc) that are actually useful for once. The fact that the non-shooty mechanics all work pretty well gives you a lot of creative room to go through the game in different ways... I actually played the game several different ways on my first run through, which I never do. I tend to find a set of mechanics that works well and then just milk them forever.

I can understand why people who have played System Shock 2 (which I have not) might see Bioshock as just a simple exercise in refinement. But one should not dismiss this kind of refinement lightly, it's not as simple or straightfoward as it looks.

Quintin_Stone wrote:
stevesan wrote:

BioShock is an awesome game. But I'd give it an 8/10 at best. Look at IMDB - the best movies are 8/10.

That's only because IMDB is an aggregate of votes. The 8's are a combination of people who will vote 10/10 for everything and a few people who vote 1/10 for everything. Anything in between is probably statistical noise. :)

You're certainly right about that. And I guess my argument is a bit meaningless because of it

Although, it is rather interesting the games industry uses the 10-pt scale quite pervasively. When talking about movies, you'll say "4 star!" or "2 thumbs up!". You rarely hear "10/10!" about a movie (on IMDB yes, but not in the mainstream media). But in games, it's all out of 10... it's almost like, reviewers are taking themselves too seriously Can you seriously assign a single scalar value (my nerdiness shining through here) of that much precision to a notion as subjective as "goodness?" I think not! I would much prefer game reviewers use the 4-star system, or even thumbs up/down - it's a lot more honest (as in, "Yeah, this isn't really that scientific or precise.").

I mean..when you see a game get 8.6/10 on GameSpot...hehe...I'm just waiting for GameSpot to give a game (2*PI + e) / 10.

stevesan wrote:

I'm just waiting for GameSpot to give a game (2*PI + e) / 10.

But that would be irrational.

Hans

hidannik wrote:
stevesan wrote:

I'm just waiting for GameSpot to give a game (2*PI + e) / 10.

But that would be irrational.

The sense of sadness and failure that hangs in the air of Rapture is something that only started to occur to me the first time I saw a Big Daddy mope. He just seemed so sad that he had no Little Sisters to protect. Once I saw that, other details started to pop out. What once seemed powerful and dangerous gradually become impotent and desperate. Bioshock has subtly, and it is greatly appreciated.

I don't want to belabor this much more, since I'm late to this party, having waited until I was well into the game to read comments (fear of spoilers and all that). I just want to say that I think a "top score" of any kind should present a game as a new standard, by which all future games will be measured until the standard is again replaced. I fully expect to judge future FPS games by the standard set forward by Bioshock, and I expect to judge certain aspects (e.g., immersion) pf most game genres by comparing them to Bioshock.

And as for monsters in closets, the amount of annoyance I experience at that kind of event is related to how much credit I give to the "monster" characters. Are they smart enough to try and surprise or trick me? In Bioshock, I think they often are, so when I get hoodwinked, I can respect it.

But then, I'm on the "entertainment" side of the proposed entertainment/sport dichotomy.