BioShock Reader Review
Bioshock brought up a lot of issues for me when it was released a few weeks ago. Nothing too personal of course; there are very few similarities between me and a guy trapped in an underwater city, unless you want to get all psychoanalytical. No, what really struck me about Bioshock was the extent to which it made me hate video game journalism. Well, there was that, and also the title's overall polish. That sort of struck me pretty hard as well. (It's very good, remember?)
Still, it did bring to light a lot of problems concerning subjectivity and snobbery in pixel-friendly journos. Firstly, it immediately became the sort of game that garners a neatly stackable set of reviews. In some cases it coaxed out a few of the more self-pitying site contributors, all of whom seemed to open with something along the lines of "Bioshock is really really difficult to score because...," and then went on to apologise for even trying to praise the game in the first place. In other cases, there were cookie-cutter features that almost always started with something like "hype is a funny thing", or "hype can make or break a game"; intros with (arguably) no place in professional reviews, which should really study the game in its own right rather than against a backdrop of previews and promo. Basically, we got the whole range of 'landmark release' templates, and in the end we got the gist. We had to go out and buy it, since Bioshock was really good. Fair enough.
But the small-fry hyperbolic reviews were only mildly annoying. What really got me down were the far more heavy-handed publications, like EG, who chose to adopt a sort of gung-ho pretentiousness. Perhaps they each wanted to nab a quote on the back of the box, or perhaps they really did like it that much (probably the latter, in all honesty). Regardless, the offending sites and magazines built Irrational's admittedly superb title into something it isn't: a progressive work of art.
The gaming community ought to have realised that Bioshock wasn't a suitable poster-boy for 'games as art' soon after completing it, and I'm sure a good-sized portion of it did. But what needs to be acknowledged by everyone is that however evocative much of this game is, it's nowhere near subtle enough to be lauded for its emotional content.
Case in point: the Little Sisters. These sinister little girls who collect the underwater city's most sought after resource are pretty important, and yet they seem like the result of one game designer's innovation taken to its extreme, at which point it stops being interesting, because it just seems so clichéd to use a 'sweet little girl' as a vehicle for a a moral theme. It's like an outdated horror film in the way it plays off the bastardisation of something innocent, but with an all too obvious question of altruism versus greed tacked on. We're already desensitised to it, and it loses a lot of its impact for it, although that's not to say that the sterling animation of these characters doesn't go some way to making your first 'decision' a tough one.
Moreover, the inhabitants of Rapture are made somewhat two-dimensional by the repeated use of, well, really lame dialogue. The whole "Come back, I just want to talk to you!" shtick is really tiresome, and if anything it just lessens the impact of the environment. The city's physical deterioration may be fleshed out brilliantly (I still have fond memories of exploring leaky suspended walkways and crumbling hallways), but the mental degradation of the Splicers is way too obvious, a flaw made worse by the slightly duff AI. Sure, if an enemy's on fire he'll jump in the water, but he'll rarely take cover, and only retreat when he's on his last legs.
It seems unfair to string out Bioshock's minor failings in this way, since by and large it manages to paint its subject matter perfectly. However, in light of the praise assigned to this behemoth of a release, it's ignorant to not point out that a lot of it errs on the side of obviousness. We still have cackling, goatee'd villains when Irrational want you to think of someone as evil; we still have saintly allies who talk of righteousness and truth when Irrational want us to think of someone as good. Scientists all talk with foreign accents, and when the player needs to be shocked (and that 18 rating justified) Irrational have the gameworld show us something typically horrific, like a lot of blood smeared everywhere, or someone getting killed or something. Worse still, when the game reveals a major plot development to you, it's more often than not accompanied by something 'shocking'.
But I suppose that's the result of the games industry in general. The amount of money needed to finance a title means the developers have to appeal to the lowest common denominator in some ways, otherwise they end up with a title that cost too much to make and didn't recoup much. They need a game with elements that will get a response from the punters. And I don't mind as such, it's just that Bioshock rehashes a lot of the old horror staples found in less advanced cinema, when in fact it could have easily gone much further. With such a stunning, eerie gameworld at hand, why didn't Irrational use it as a tool to build up tension even higher, as opposed to increasing the number of enemies and turning it into a combat arena? Having witnessed some of the game's standout moments, many of which come early on, you soon become aware of what could have been done.
However, there are a few ways in which the game's narrative redeems itself, although I'll refrain from giving them away. Basically, what it comes down to is a kind of wry reflexivity. It's self-referential at a number of points throughout the game (one in particular), and it's especially clever in making your task itself question the ideals of Andrew Ryan and his city. And then, um, sort of laugh at the conventions of the actual FPS genre as a whole...
Then again, you could argue these higher concepts are not what Bioshock is primarily about. Action, not tension or pretension (fnar!), is what it gives the player, and the feel of the weapons is what makes this element enjoyable. Granted, the AI isn't that advanced, and by the end of the game any conflict with a Big Daddy may not seem like such a big deal, but there's plenty of fun to be had using the flame thrower, shotgun, or wrench, especially when combined with the genetic modification that you get to mess around with. My advice would be to focus on getting to know the more innovative plasmids and tonics, since the basic offensive/defensive elemental stuff is far less interesting. Ultimately it's irrelevant whether or not every tonic or plasmid is fun to use, since the sheer number of them is what allows you to decide on your own style of combat (although there aren't nearly as many options open to you as certain people will have you believe).
It's worth mentioning also that the rather small number of questionable design choices that have been criticised by a few people really aren't a major issue. Any difficulty setting may end up being a tad easy due to the infinite respawn system, but it's really a moot point. Sacrificing the flow of the game in favour of challenge might not have been such a great idea, but neither was making it too easy. I personally would have preferred a system of regular autosaves, with the option of quick saves, as that would have relieved me of my compulsion to constantly save the game every few rooms. It's also not as inconsistent towards the end as some have said, but that's more for the individual to decide. My only real technical gripe is that the hacking minigames are not in line with the pace of the rest of the game, and can get a little repetitive.
Then again, you may realise once you finish the game that it's mostly pointless discussing whatever problems you had with the game's structure or difficulty, because what mattered most was the time spent wandering around Rapture, taking in a few dozen incredible sights, and just generally absorbing the atmosphere. For once, it doesn't seem superficial to recommend this game on the strength of its art direction, lighting, water effects, and wonderful soundtrack.
Overwrought Conclusion Here
So, Bioshock succeeds in bringing together a great deal of nice touches, as well as putting the overall feel of the game environment above all else. However, it falters occasionally, as some of its less inspired ideas are overplayed. It's fair to say the vast majority of people loved it, but it's unfair to say it will redefine the video game as a medium, which if anything still looks to be in its early stages. Nevertheless, it probably has the most memorable first hour or so of any recent game, as well as a genuinely intelligent subtext to a plot that might otherwise have been construed as inconsistent.
And to conclude this hypocritical, self-conscious review: a score. A nine may seem a lot less than a ten, but consider it a high nine. So, that's a big thumbs up from me. All I need now is a copy of System Shock 2...
9 / 10