More noise than signal

Bioshock – to the end

I have acquired a hell of a lot of games over the past few years that I haven’t really given much attention to. Before buying anything else, it’s time to play them …to the end.

The following is a rambling log of thoughts, experiences and opinions that might, if you squint a bit, loosely be termed a review.

Bioshock should need little introduction, so I shall limit the formalities to saying that it is at heart an FPS with a limited weapon / Jedi-like ability upgrade system that allows for some degree of customisation to your player as the game progresses. The setting itself grabbed the most headlines, however, with a once prosperous undersea city run as the logical extension of relentless, government interference free capitalism that has seen it go from a position of strength to almost falling apart. You must stumble around trying to piece together what’s happened and.. well, we’ll take that as it comes, shall we?

Day 1

I believe I’d played Bioshock for a grand total of two hours, after having it sit on a shelf for a year or so. The mechanics of the game seemed initially repellant to me, and I wasn’t hurting for other games to play. Still, time to take another look at it.

I seem to remember the biggest brouhaha being made over the graphics in Bioshock. If we’re going to be all technical about it, the graphics aren’t actually all that brilliant, even for the time, at least on the basis of the first couple of levels. The texturing is somewhere between adequate and dull, and the character models aren’t all that complex or interesting.

What people meant was that the style of the graphics was worth making a brouhaha about, which also ties into the audio design, the scattered diaries of people going progressively more insane and the always compelling trick of dumping you somewhere dilapidated that was once idyllic, without knowing why it’s fallen so far and so hard.

I’m actually enjoying this a lot more than on my first dalliance, perhaps because I’m more open to taking in the ambience of the piece rather than just thinking about the game mechanics, which at the moment are little advanced over any of the ten-a-penny FPS’s littering the 360 landscape.

Let’s see if this view holds up to a more extended play.

Day 2

We take a relaxing run through the fisheries.

While I’m trying to forget that I already know the twist in this little narrative’s tale, that aside I’m enjoying the gradual uncovering of the the conflict between Rapture creator Andrew Ryan and his rival, the underground crime boss cum hero of the people Frank Fontaine, with Ryan’s increasing obsession and paranoia seeming to be the catalyst behind the collapse.

Doesn’t really explain why there would be so many diaries scattered around the place so randomly, though. Perhaps a naughty dog did it.

It occurs to me that the decision whether to harvest or rescue the Little Sisters in this game is a pretty perfect distillation of all of the thus far fairly feeble attempts to introduce morality into a video game narrative. BioWare are the prime proponents of this, and while games like Jade Empire and Mass Effect are some of my favourites, their moral choices were so needlessly poles apart that they may as well have all been replaced with Bioshock‘s version – do I murder a small child for personal gain, or not?

Day 3

So, after today’s efforts, I think I’m round about halfway through the game. Some of the cracks are starting to appear. I’m being sent on a worrying amount of fetch quests to progress. Kill seven members of a cult for the McGuffin they’re carrying? Find seven bottles of distilled water? What is this, a MMORPG?

I suppose it’s really no different from Doom‘s whole “find the red key to get the yellow key to get the blue key to get to the exit” schtick, but that wasn’t attempting to build a cohesive framework around its shooty shooty bang bangs.

Regardless, I have a soft spot for the mentalisms of Sander Cohen in Fort Frolic, even if the whole level basically reduces to electrobolting Spider Splicers and clubbing them with a wrench.

Well, pretty much all of the game so far has reduced to that, to be honest. I think I’ve not even used half of the other weapons so far. Why alter a winning strategy?

Oh, and to satisfy my ob-com tendencies, I decided to get that “Luck Winner” ‘Achievement’ on the slot machines, which consists of standing in front of a machine and hitting ‘A’. For about half an hour.

Thrilling! And nothing garners a real sense of achievement like a totally random event that has no base in skill whatsoever! Go, design team!

Day 4

While it’s not become what I’d call a chore to finish, I’m just heading into the last level with pretty much all of the lustre taken from the piece. The past few levels have been a succession of irritating tricks that I suppose were supposed to make me, or my character, or whatever fusion of the two, feel powerless. Like a puppet, perhaps, given the revelations of the final third that I shall gloss over in the admittedly massively unlikely event that anyone who wants to play this game hasn’t done so by now.

Regardless, there’s really very few more annoying tricks to be played in a game like this than arbitrarily losing control of my character to allow something narratively convenient to occur without me tapping away on the ‘Bludgeon with wrench’ button to ruin the precious structure of the game, and that’s exactly what happens here. This has the exact opposite effect of what was intended. This does not draw me into a narrative. It attaches a high explosive to the fourth wall, blows that sunuvabitch up and reminds you that you are wasting a perfectly sunny evening, with the World Cup on as well, swinging a virtual wrench into the approximately eleventy millionth ‘mad doctor’ enemy character model.

And as if that’s not irritating enough, it follows up this with an equally arbitrary ‘lose all of your powers for a bit’ section, as your control of your plasmid upgrades goes haywire. This might be less of a problem if the weapons in the game weren’t so disappointingly dull. Even with what would seem to be a varied selections of different ammo types for each weapon, essentially giving each weapon a secondary and tertiary fire mode, this just gives minor bonuses against certain types of foe. It’s just the same old shotgun, pistol, grenade launcher, etc that I seem to have been using since the dawn of FPSs.

The only difference here being that they might as well not exist, because even against what I assume to be the toughest enemies in the game you might as well just batter them quickly into submission with a wrench that freezes things, somehow.

Excitingly, the next level looks like it will feature an escort quest! If it also includes a power-up that reverses your controls, we’ll have a complete set of every shitty trick ever pulled in a video game!

Day 5

Well, it’s all over bar the finger-pointing. The last level falls much in line with the rest of the game, albeit in a silly helmet, and while I’ll give the last boss some credit for being different it certainly wasn’t particularly challenging. It also continues the last few level’s theme of playing with or removing elements of the game mechanics present throughout the rest of the game, in this case the Vita-chamber respan points.

This, you’d think, might give the encounter a bit of an edge, but assuming you’ve bought enough Medikits, shotgun and grenade ammo from the suspiciously closely grouped vending machines before the lift to the encounter there’s really no problem with the last fight. And you’re certainly not going to be short on any of those items in the first instance, what with all that wrench-based action going on.

So, it’s been mildly diverting for a few days, and I certainly didn’t want to throw the game out of the window at any point, so I suppose I got my money’s worth from the game, which if I recall correctly was about ten quid. I shall leave the game to percolate through my braintank for a few days before wrapping this up.

Finger Pointing

More than any other game I’ve played, Bioshock asks for a degree of collusion with the game designers’ ideas on how it should be played, and the enjoyability of the game is directly proportional to the degree to which you go along with it. I hadn’t bothered to turn off the ‘tutorial’ hints that pop up occasionally, and so quite often a message would pop up saying that I was low on health packs, but wealthy, so I should go buy some at a vending machine. But why, the cynical mind would enquire, should I bother when the penalty for running out of health is to respawn at the last respawn-o-vitachamber I passed, with the same weapons loadout and indeed every other attribute as when I died? Well, there’s the small matter of running back to the scene of the action, but none of the levels are so large as to present any real problems on that level, and with the amount of backtracking required in some of them may also present a handy shortcut.

In this game you have, to any reasonable standard, immortality by default, without a cheat code. Unless you’re really looking to max out the achievement points from the game, there’s no incentive at all to play the game ‘properly’. Why sneak up on splicer and snipe them with the crossbow, why bother tediously photographing and researching splicers, why bother finding all of the weapon upgrade stations, when the route one approach of running up to an enemy and hitting it with a wrench remains as resoundingly effective at the end of the game as it does at the start?

For the most part, the answer to most of these questions is that it’s more fun that way, and if you’re playing the game to have fun rather than simply complete it, you should perhaps play it that way. Unfortunately, at least as far as I’m concerned, it’s not much more fun to play it the way it’s been designed to be played, and it involves an awful lot of faffing around, so I choose to remain in Wrenchville, Respawn County.

The back of the box promises a game experience like no other, which is a prime example of marketing hyperbole, given that this is a game experience very much like a dumbed down subset of System Shock 2 with a 1940’s graphical edge. Narratively it uses exactly the same tricks, but Bioshock‘s simplified approach to the genetic enhancements common to both games removes a lot of the choices that made SS2 more compelling. This wouldn’t be a problem if the combat mechanics otherwise felt smooth and fluid, with interesting weapons, but Bioshock feels dated on this score, more like a contemporary of Timesplitters 2 than Modern Warfare.

Right then, the storyline. There’s a school of thought that narrative has no place in a predominantly interactive medium such as gaming. I see the point, especially for games that have never and should never be battered into that structure. No-one is hurting for lack of a story arc in the Need for Speed series. Most developers’ idea of developing a story is to grind everything to a halt, show a pre-rendered movie then continue blasting away, which is at best a mere distraction.

Valve do this well in the Half-Life series, by subsuming the narrative throughout the game in a way that if all you want to do is run and gun, you don’t even have to pick up on it. Well, for the most part, as there’s the odd unskippable cut scene moment, but a lot of the game’s flavour comes from scrawls on message boards and overheard NPC conversations and the like. Crucially, the most interesting events in the game were happening around you.

In Bioshock, like Dead Space and the System Shock games, the most interesting things in their scenarios happen long before you first hit the ‘start game’ option. Not necessarily a problem, but at times it feels as though everything down to the level design has been construed more with the intent of supplying a visualisation of the previous societal collapse than it does with providing a enjoyable playing experience. I would dearly love for this game to have spent as much attention on its gameplay as its setting, as then this would be a truly remarkable experience.

As it stands, it’s an interesting, visually markedly different setting attached to a pretty dull, challenge-free, often repetitive game with limited variations in enemy design and weaponry. Narratively and visually it’s interesting, but mechanically it’s at best workmanlike and that’s assuming you play the game rather than abuse the inherently flawed game design choices.

10/10? Game of the Year candidate? Not a bit of it.