Crysis was sort of fun, but entirely forgettable so I really didn’t think there was any reason for me to spend more than a single post talking about it. While I enjoyed some of the combat scenarios in the game, there is really nothing else to talk about there.
Bioshock is different in that it does try to tell a bit more ambitious story combined with a much more complex game play universe. As a result, the game gives me is much more to talk about.
What is this game about?
You start the game as the sole survivor of a plane crash somewhere in the middle of the ocean. Surprisingly you find a tiny island with a functional lighthouse, and inside of it a small bathysphere that takes you down to a fabulous underwater city known as Rapture.
As you soon find out, Rapture is a failed objectivist utopia. Initially built by capitalist, Andrew Ryan as a safe haven for capitalists, scientists and artists. Inside the isolated Rapture they would be free to pursue their goals without the fear of being censored or exploited by any government. However something happened there.
When you arrive on the scene, Rapture is a ruined ghost city. Most of the infrastructure is destroyed, some areas are leaking and/or flooded and the population seems to have been decimated. The only inhabitants of the city are half-insane, violent “splicers” who seems to be twisted and mutated former inhabitants of the city, creepy little girls with glowing red eyes that walk around with huge syringes that they use to harvest substances from corpses, and their huge, armored bodyguards “Big Daddies”.
The city’s founder, Andrew Ryan seems to be still alive and is convinced you are a spy sent down to rapture by one of the surface nations and so he tries to exterminate you. Your only ally in Rapture seems to be Atlas – a man who like you seeks a way out of the city.
As you try to help Atalas, and find a way out of this nightmarish city, you eventually uncover the truth about what exactly happened to Rapture. Did the city self destruct due to the flaws in the objectivist philosophy? Did Andrew Ryan become drunk with power and turned into an insane dictator. Or is there more to this story? Is there something more sinister going on here?
The story turns out to be more complex than it seems at first. More on this later though.
Even though I don’t usually talk about video game graphics that much I must comment on how Bioshock looks: different. There is a very strong art direction in the game that takes it away from the fashionable hyper-realism towards a rather unique style.
The Rapture looks amazing – and I spent a lot of time early on in the game just walking around and looking out the windows checking out the flickering neon lights and the city scape bathed in a blueish haze. There is a great deal of attention put into these backdrops – lights go on an off, you can see different types of fish swimming around.
Each location has a unique look and feel too it. For example, Arcadia is a park area, with a small forest growing inside of it. The Hephaestus is an industrial power plant that seems to be built on top of some undersea volcano.
My favorite however is Fort Frolic which seems to have been the cultural center of Rapture but is currently run by an insane artist who likes to make sculptures out of living people. It’s never really explained how it is done but it almost seems like he ties people down in the position he wants, and then sprays plaster all over them. The whole level is littered with these disturbing statues – and if you accidentally shoot, or hit one of them, they actually bleed.
Oh, and some of them are not actually dead and will “come alive” and try to kill you when you get close.
In other words, the game looks great but not because it uses this or that type of pixel shading. It looks amazing because someone actually put some thought into designing it, and giving it a unique, different look. The character models may look nowhere as good as in Crysis, but the overall effect is 10 times more striking and distinctive.
Bioshock handles like a fairly standard FPS game. You get a standard range of movement (strafing, jumping, crouching), 8 weapons that can be scrolled through with the mouse wheel or activated with the numeric keys. The popular “aim down the barrel” mode (usually associated with RMB) is suspiciously missing. I mention it, because it really bothered me for the first hour or so. I didn’t even realize how much I rely on that thing – the last two games I played (Fallout 3 and Crysis) both utilized this feature, and it felt weird not having it. The came has no scoped weapons, and no aiming. If you want head shots, you need to do them the old fashioned way – from the hip, and while circle strafing.
The game makes up for this by giving each weapon up to 3 different kinds of ammunition. You can switch between the ammo types, at the cost of a reload action. For example, shotgun has standard, exploding and electric ammo (which shocks and immobilizes the victim for a few seconds). This gives you a wide variety of ways to kill your opponents.
Since Bioshock has an RPG-FPS heritage, it also inherited a weapon upgrade system. Each weapon has two upgrades that are dispensed at special vending machines. You can only upgrade s single weapon per machine and some upgrades are better than the others. For example the fast reloading feature for the shotgun (ie no “pumping” between shots), and invulnerability to the splash damage of your own grenade launcher are must haves. Some other upgrades – not so much. Nice touch is that each of these upgrades has a visual representation on the weapon. So your starter guns eventually mutate into strange steampunk mutations with coils, gears, switches and etc.
I found that the combat is actually quite frantic, and you usually get better effects from running around like a mad man, circle strafing, bunny hopping rather than from strategic use of cover and aimed shots. Especially when you fight with the monstrous Big Daddies that take quite a few shots to put down.
There is no “Game Over” screen in Bioshock which is something that I actually liked. When you die, you wake up in a nearby resurrection booth. It is bit like you were playing an MMO. When you fuck up, you will just have to lose some time running back to your last location.
This mechanic is of course ripe for abuse. Some enemies can simply be brute forced. For example you can lure a Big Daddy into the resurrection chamber and just stand inside of the chamber and keep hitting with your strongest weapon. When you die, you will respawn, and you can immediately resume your assault.
Some people could say that this sort of thing ruins the game but I say fuck those people. It’s my game, and I will ruin it, the way I want. In other words, the resurrection idea worked fine for me. You see, I’m the kind of person who likes to spam the Quicksave button in every game. I literally hit that thing ever 5 minutes or so, because I hate repetition. In my book, there is nothing worse than DiAS gameplay that makes me repeat the same sequence over and over again, until I do it perfectly. Unfortunately in Bioshock the “Quick Save” feature is anything but quick. It actually takes you out of the game for 4-5 seconds showing you a loading screen. The resurrection system makes up for it though. It is like a combination of a checkpoint based system, and quick save feature. You don’t lose any progress, but you may need to do some back tracking. Which I didn’t really mind.
The ammo situation in the game annoyed me a bit. You either have to little or to much bullets. Most of the splicers drop only a few rounds – usually less than you need to take them down. So for the most of the game you will be bleeding ammo. On the other hand, there are rooms full of ammo, and vending machines where you can resupply on every corner. So you are almost always on a verge of running out of ammo, but you can usually find just enough to scrape by.
In other words, each level plays like an annoying “creature” level. You know what I’m talking about. HL2 had zombie locations where no enemies would actually drop anything useful, and you would have to desperately search every nook and cranny to actually survive. Crysis Warhead had the levels where you would battle hordes of aliens. Fallout 3 had locations populated by creatures such as ants or molerats. But these games would also have normal levels where enemies would be armed and would drop enough ammo for you to never worry about conserving it. Bioshock doesn’t have those.
Big Daddies especially, are huge ammo sinks that usually carry no ammunition, and barely enough cash to buy one of two shotgun clips. The only reason to kill them is to get to the Little Sisters they escort. If they don’t have one around, it’s best leave them alone.
Bioshock is supposed to be an FPS with RPG elements but I call bullshit on that. Show me one RPG like element? There is no inventory screen, no stats and no experience points. Your weapons and plasmids get power ups, but that is hardly an RPG trait.
The loot is limited to medkits, eve hypos (they replenish your mana equivalent), consumables (which you scarf down on the spot to gain few HP, quest items, auto-hack tools and random garbage that can be combined at a vending machine to create ammo or other items. You never know what exactly you are carrying, and you can’t trade anything.
The only other way to advance your character is through plasmids. As you travel throughout the Rapture you will be able to pick up special powers in the form of plasmids. A lot of these abilities resemble classic Jedi powers such as force pull, force push, force lighting, Jedi mind trick and etc. There are couple of original ones such as the Incinerate power (my personal favorite) that allows you to set people on fire. There are also some passive plasmids that give you various in-game bonuses such as higher resistance to damage, hacking bonuses and etc..
The system allows you to pick and choose which powers you want, and most of them can be upgraded to a stronger version at some point. You don’t actually have to specialize or even think about which powers are worth investing in. You can store the plasmids you don’t use for later, and swap them out at any time at a specialized vending machine – there is always at least one per level.
There are couple of ways you can obtain new plasmids. You can find them, create them in the U-Invent stations, or purchase them from vending machines in exchange for ADAM. Since the plasmids work just like weapons and are not dependent on experience, you don’t have to worry about level caps or anything like that. There is no limit as to how many plasmids you can obtain, so it is in your best interest to grab every single one you encounter on your way.
The only way to obtain ADAM is from the Little Sisters that wander the Rapture. Each time you kill a Big Daddy you can either harvest the girl he was protecting (effectively killing her) and get lots of ADAM, or rescue her and get just a little bit of ADAM. That’s sort of the games main moral dilemma.
What do you do with the little sisters? When you are given this choice for the first time, the game has a great scripted event where the little girl seems to be truly terrified of you and begs you to leave her alone. It is actually very hard to kill that first one. Later on however, the sisters tend to ignore you and instead just skulk somewhere in the corner and cry. Eventually I stopped caring about them and started harvesting them whenever I was low on ADAM.
I sort of blame the game for this. There are so many little sisters in the game, that the whole exercise becomes a routine after a while. They all look the same, and the all have the same few lines of dialogue which means that after you liberate 20 or 30 of them you sort of stop caring. You no longer view them as characters or human beings, but as mobile ADAM dispensers. If there were less of them in the game, if all sisters had unique models, scripted behaviors and unique voices I probably wouldn’t be able to kill any of them. But since they all have the same generic look, you eventually become desensitized to the point where the choice of killing the girl boils down to how much ADAM you currently have on you. Which is a bit sad. The game could have done a lot of things to really make this choice difficult – but it didn’t.
That said, there is one point in the game where you are in a room full of little sisters and talk amongst themselves. I really felt like an evil bastard when one of the girls pointed at me and said something among the lines of “He is the one who hurts us, stay away from him!”. I almost regretted that I harvested all these sisters throughout the game. But one guilt trip very late in the game is not enough to really drive the message home.
Liberating 3 sisters in a row will usually result in them leaving you a nice present of 200 ADAM next to a vending machine to show their gratitude. This is nice, because it means a good player won’t be penalized to severely. On the other hand it makes this whole exercise fairly meaningless. On one hand, the game doesn’t do enough to discourage you from killing the sisters or guilt trip you for doing it. On the other hand, there is really no advantage to kill them – you just get more ADAM now, as opposed to more ADAM later. But whatever you do there will be always enough ADAM to go around. So in terms of game mechanic, it doesn’t really matter what you do – despite of what Atlas tells you when you first encounter a little sister.
And besides, what kind of moral choice is this? I am sick and tired of games that use the “kill the kitten or send the kitten to college” type of choice and then claim that their game is all about moral choices. It is not! It’s contrived, silly and immersion breaking. When a moral choice becomes a game mechanic for obtaining something specific, it ceases to be meaningful. You no longer think about it in terms of difficult choices your character must make – you evaluate these situation purely in game terms. How much ADAM do I have? None? Well, I guess I’m harvesting this one then.
You really can’t try to hit me with the exact same dilemma, presented in the exact same way over and over again, and expect me to continue caring. It just doesn’t work that way. Game designers should stop trying to make morality a game mechanic. So far the only games that presented me with real, difficult moral dilemmas were the ones that never even mentioned “moral choices” in their press releases. They made no attempt to quantize morality or award/punish me for my choices, and they never attempted to simplify the situation so that each option fits nicely either into the good or the evil bracket.
So while the whole morality system is shallow and contrived, the game does have some unexpected depth. I actually found Andrew Rayan to be quite an intriguing character, and the story of Rapture’s downfall an interesting commentary on what happens when noble ideals are confronted with harsh reality of human nature. But more on that later.
The review is getting a bit long, so I will stop here for now. Next time I will talk about the the story itself and the characters. Oh, and the stupid, obligatory minigame. I wanted to complain about it in this post, bur it is getting way to long now.