Sunday, January 04, 2009


Bioshock is an First-Person-Shooter-Role-Playing-Game (FPSRPG) set in the dysfunctional and failed-Utopian underwater world of Rapture--founded by Andrew Ryan--where the player can use either the standard weapon set of pistols/machine-guns/grenade-launchers/etc or powerful tonics called Plasmids that enable the player to preform a variety of magical attacks on their enemies, who consist of mutants, malfunctioning machines, and mysterious creatures called Big Daddies and Little Sisters, who also happen to have Adam, the secret ingredient that gives people even more magical Plasmid powers.

Things I liked about Bioshock:

1. The environments are stuffed with information. You don't walk around boring corridors and lifeless arenas that could pass for any random location or hallway with generic pipes/branches/walls/doors. Everything in Rapture is filled with posters, audio logs, sculptures, propaganda, and anything you can think of that helps reveal back story and makes the city feel more alive. You can literally spend hours just searching the environment and inferring back story from the levels. This makes it much more fun and interesting to be playing in this setting.
2. The combat has strategy. Compare a game like Call of Duty 5 to Bioshock. Call of Duty 5 has only one strategy for every combat situation: shoot the enemy, advance by cover, if possible flank the enemy, if you can't see the enemy, throw a grenade, then move on when the enemy is dead--REPEAT. There's no variety to that formula, no thought, no challenge, and little if any fun. In Bioshock, you are given a variety of weapons and powers, constantly changing environments to use them in, and an array of different enemy types to battle with. These scenarios constantly challenge the player as he or she must decide what, how, and where to use their combat abilities. You can approach an enemy with a variety of plasmids that range from fire, ice, telekinesis, lightning, or even bees. Coupled with the environment, you can use these powers on things like oil spills, water puddles, or lying gas cans, to manipulate the physical world to your advantage. For weapons, you are given the standard melee/pistol/shotgun/machine-gun/rocket-launcher/sniper, but they all work the way they're supposed to. Each weapon has its own highlights and drawbacks, making every weapon useful in a particular circumstance. Even more, you can customize the different types of ammo in the guns adding a further element of strategy. Because of all this, there is no one sure-fire way to approach every combat situation, and you must always be on your feet about how to engage the next type of enemy in the next type of environment. This makes the game challenging and saves it from becoming boring or repetitive.
3. The Audio Logs serve a purpose. System Shock 1 had audio logs; System Shock 2 had audio logs; now Bioshock has them too. In each game, they have been subsequently improved over the last. In Bioshock, the audio logs are genuinely interesting, well-written, and well-voice acted. They still occasionally give the generic "Mr. Suchong, I changed the door code to 5-6-7-8. Please don't tell anyone!" but it works better in this game than the previous ones. Overall, the Audio Logs are a great story incentive to motivate the player to search a new environment for something other than ammo and cash.

Things I didn't like about Bioshock:

1. Switching between Plasmids is cumbersome. So you have these magical powers called plasmids, and you get to put them in up to six available slots from which you can access them during any battle. The problem is you can't remember which slot holds which plasmid, and switching between them with F1-F6 isn't very intuitive while trying to fight off two attackers and a Big Daddy at the same time with all your fingers preoccupied with WASD+Mouse. To make matters worse at the beginning, you acquire enough plasmids fast enough that they shuffle through each slot continuously, removing any previous slot memorization you may have made. Even in Gene Banks (where you can swap available plasmids), you aren't allowed to move around the order you put them in without going through a hefty work-around. The least they could have done was permanently leave the Plasmid Slot GUI at the top of the screen so you remember which slot goes where (like Psychonauts did with their powers). The result is that when combat becomes hectic, Plasmid management becomes unintuitive, something that makes battles a tad frustrating and chaotic at times.
2. The game becomes too easy. The first third or so of the game has excellent pacing and an appropriate difficulty curve that can be labeled as "challenging." However, as the game goes into the second half, it becomes annoyingly easy to the point of boredom. Why?
2.A. During the second half of the game, ammo, medkits, money, and anything you could ever want or desire is littered all over the place. But by this time, you don't actually need any of these items because your character has become so ridiculously powerful. Ammo is easily acquired and stockpiled because you don't have enough time or inclination to switch and use all the different weapons you have. As such, there are some weapons you never touch or use for entire stretches of the game. It's much more preferable to use plasmids--something you can recharge--instead of weapons, which consume precious ammo every usage. Medkits and Eve Hypos become less useful because of new Plasmids that actually recharge these two attributes in a variety of ways. E.g. you can whack at enemies with the wrench to stealth their health, OR, you can hack a vending machine and gain health and eve, OR, you can just pick up any alcohol you find in a container and drink it down plentifully. Finally, because you don't really need any ammo, medkits, or any of this stuff, money becomes useless since there is nothing left to purchase at Vending Machines that you don't already have. This is especially tedious since all the Big Daddies you so valiantly kill drop generous amounts of cash which you can't pick up in the final levels. All of these useless items just remove player motivation to explore new arenas. Even more, it removes an entire element of survival strategy. Games like Resident Evil use ammo consumption as a fair way to have the player conserve and find the most efficient ways to use his or her weapons in every situation. Without this element of strategy, you lose an entire game mechanic in Bioshock.
2B. Most Big Daddies don't attack you unless you provoke them. This sounds good in theory, since nobody wants to find off a monstrous attacker who leaps out on them by surprise. However, this means you get to set up ridiculous amounts of traps and barbed wire in order to take him down while he stares you in the face, oblivious of your plan. After that, all you need to do is fire a single shot at him for the Big Daddy say, "I'm gonna get ya'!" and then he runs through your obstacle course of destruction and falls down dead without you ever taking a second shot.
There are sections of the game where Big Daddies are alone, without their Little Sister companions. I think those times are appropriate for neutrality. I do think, however, that when Little Sisters do come out, they should force the Big Daddies to attack you. It would make the combat much more scary and tense and provide a second gameplay purpose for the Little Sisters.
3. The game is fatiguing. When you enter the next level of this grand city of Rapture, all you need to do is Press "M" and see the gigantic maze of a level that you must now enter--they could have just used the fog of war effect, only revealing the part of the map that you've been to. This wouldn't be so bad if the player had an incentive to explore this level and proceed to advance the story, but the game frequently makes it frustrating to do so.
First of all, since the second half of the game is so easy, often times there is little left to explore to buff up your character. I would walk through levels maxed out on ammo, health, medkits, and upgrades, so then all that there was left to look for was Adam. After you destroy all the Big Daddies in a level (who have the Adam), there are only Upgrade Stations or Loose Plasmids to look forward to, both of which are extremely rare. Because of this, I was in no rush to explore optional places looking for character advancement.
Second of all, many of the story goals have nothing to do physically do with the story. When you enter a level, you are often told to kindly go on a fetch quest across the room, which leads you to another fetch quest on the other side of the level, and these annoying task-hand-offs continue throughout the entire game. Many times you are just told to flip switches, or acquire nameless or generic items to proceed. It was hard to distinguish actual story goals from going around and picking up the next labeled item you were told to acquire. It would have been more interesting if you had to complete goals that were unique or pertinent to the world itself (something which happens only much later in the game). Instead, you just run around searching for Red Keys to unlock Red Doors--except replace Red Key with Electromagnetic bomb, and Red Door with Andrew Ryan's office.
4. The Story relies too much on inference. There are two ways a game can tell you what's going on. For instance, take Half-Life 2. You can infer from the city, background, and setting, that the Combine are the evil overlords who have enslaved the people. You are told directly that you must go to Eli's Lab and get the gravity gun, that you must escape Ravenholm because the Combine are coming, and that you must rescue Eli because you know he is a good guy.
Now, Bioshock on the other hand relies almost solely on inference from the player. Every feature of the world is immediately thrust upon you from the beginning. What is Rapture? Why is it now so decayed and ruined? What are these Little Sisters and Big Daddies, and what is Adam?
The answers are never told to you directly. Instead, you have to infer them from the environment, dialog, and audio logs you find all over the place. However, by putting a large chunk of the story in audio logs, the game takes a huge risk. Often times the player can miss these audio logs, removing a critical part of the background story. Or, the player can pick these up out of order (but the game saves you from doing that, for the most part) and instead get a disgruntled version of the story. Or worse, the player can find these logs and listen to them, but not even pay attention to what is being said because of the blaring alarms, screaming mutants, moaning big daddies, and singing little sisters who are all slowly creeping upon you.
Since so much of the story relies on inference, many key plot points are somewhat muddled and not perfectly clear. You don't know for certain which character is who, and what they are trying to do. So when the story finally reveals itself, you are left in state of slight ambiguity trying to remember who did what and why.

I really liked the first third of Bioshock, but as the game progressed, its complexity dragged it down to a state of lesser enjoyment. All the key components of an excellent game are there, but they don't feel fully put in the right places. Portal is a game that works because of its simplicity. It takes an idea, and fully expounds on it to its highest potential. Bioshock takes tens of ideas, and when trying to balance them all together, doesn't fully succeed in the long run. Still, the game is an achievement worth experiencing, and contains enough fun to make it one of the better FPS games of this generation.
Final Score:

(Play it)

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