BioShock: A Defence

Would you kindly quit your whining?

A backlash was inevitable.

BioShock is amongst the most critically acclaimed games of the year. In terms of Metacritic average, its only peers are Super Mario Galaxy and Halo 3. You'll note, bar minor sniping, their status hasn't been questioned anywhere near as much as the adventures of a man with a wrench in Rapture's. This, also, is inevitable. They're known qualities. Everyone, to a lesser or greater degree, has made up their minds already. If you can't choke down the saccharine standard Mario world or aren't convinced that Halo's combat mechanics are anywhere near as elegant as its devotees make them out, you're highly unlikely to play them. There's much to hate in both games, but their fans simply don't care and those who aren't fans will never throw away forty quid for something that isn't to their taste.

In other words, a BioShock backlash was inevitable as it's new. People bought it on the strength of the reviews (and the hype - always, the hype) and then, when this random selection of gamers played it and compared their response to the ejaculate-smeared reviews, a larger proportion went "I don't think so" and pointed at the flaws.

But a game having flaws doesn't mean the emperor has no clothes, and the prevalent forum attitude to BioShock has wandered so far away from its merits to require a stern riposte. That I haven't done so yet saddens me a little.

You see, I was surprised to find BioShock's not my favourite game of the year. I'm also aware that perhaps the intensity of discourse around the game had something to do with it. When I think of BioShock, I have to wipe away pages of forum nit-picking and genuinely bitter pub-based rows before I can even start thinking about, at its best, how clever and elegant it is and how on its own grounds it makes everything else released in this incredible year for videogames distinctly second-rate. For most of this year, I've been too tired to actually do this.

But when the response to a patch with free new content is just a shrug and a bunch of whining over free stuff, I can't help but think we - as a community - need a good slapping and a reminder that we should be a little bit grateful. I'll start with more mechanistic stuff and head increasingly into the art, so if you want the fanciest ponce-words, get skipping. And, clearly, HEAVY SPOILERS FOLLOW.

A BioShock backlash was inevitable. As was a backlash to the backlash. So it goes.

"DUMBED DOWN SYSTEM SHOCK."

Yeah.

Okay.

1

This is a difficult one, because I'm pretty much incapable of reading a paragraph with it in without immediately, out of hand, rejecting the person saying as having anything worthwhile to say. It's a buzzphrase that's just shorthand for "I haven't actually thought about this at all". But actually trying to engage with it... people who throw the "dumbing down" complaints seem to have two genuine issues.

1) It's easier to play.
2) A load of interesting options have been removed so it's a much simpler game.

The first one's true. BioShock is both a more accessible and easier game than System Shock 2. But "easier" doesn't have anything to with it being "dumber", and hating "more accessible" is just petty elitism from people who'd actually like videogames to be a ghetto consisting of them - especially when some of the things to make the game more accessible can be turned off. As long as point two's not true, then the former really doesn't matter.

And the second's not true. Mechanistically, you can do just about everything you can in System Shock. What was removed was either irrelevant, actual flaws or replaced with alternative methods to allow similar expression. For example, pre-patch PC fans were angry there was no option to walk on the PC. But - y'know - walking is about allowing you to move quietly. You can move quietly through the crouch, signifying creeping. In terms of the tactics allowed by your player, you can do the same. It's annoying when the Xbox has it, but it doesn't remove options. There's no leaning around corners but - really - if you're looking around a corner you're visible, and functionally a tiny strafe and back does the same thing.

(I'll concede losing the cover of a corner is regrettable, however.)

2

But that said, some of the elements which have been critiqued by the purists are actually more complicated than Shock 2. The hacking isn't BioShock's strongest point... but in Shock 2 it was literally pressing buttons with no relation to player skill whatsoever. The photo-based research is, mechanistically, more interesting than Shock 2's system of just finding the right chemical and dragging it to the right bit of the User Interface. Hell - stuff like the invention and the weapon upgrade system has no parallel in System Shock 2. The formalised role-playing statistics are removed, but a system where you can create a build for your character allows you to vary the character in meaningful ways. There's also the added bonus of increased verisimilitude due to things like weapons degradation and the requirement for a player to have a certain level of a skill before they can use certain weapons being cut. These are elements of Shock 2 which, frankly, most people thought were a bit rubbish.

It's a different, quicker paced, easier game, sure... but in terms of allowable player expression, it's not in any way a dumber shock.

"IT'S JUST SYSTEM SHOCK 2.5."

This, funnily enough, is a much better argument. The plot is similar. The structure is similar. What you actually do is virtually identical - you move around, you look at logs, you explore, you try and collect bits and pieces, you follow orders of some mysterious voice in you head.

It even shares the primary fault of System Shock 2 - despite some merits I'll argue later, the final third is less compelling than it should be. Once you leave the Von Braun in Shock 2, the game loses a lot of its sense of place, and leaving you in levels far more linear than anything BioShock throws at you that late in the game. Except the escort mission, obv.

So, yeah, it's a lot like System Shock 2.

Fair enough. Shock 2 was one of the greatest games of its period. If only all games were crippled with that problem.

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