In terms of videogames, BioShock is probably old news now. Winning a slew of awards and becoming the darling of the videogame journalist world, BioShock faded into relative obscurity after a flurry of accolades following its August release. Certainly it wasn’t that the games quality waned over the following months, it is just that its single player only gameplay was soon lost admits a slew of Online Enabled First Person Shooters.
Whilst most recognised the inherent greatness and complexity of BioShock, it was hard to look back at it fondly when engaged in a hilarious Rocket Race on Halo 3. Indeed, and to my shame, after completing BioShock I was quick to trade in the game for the latest thing.
It was only when BioShock producer Ted Levine made a keynote address at a recent developer’s conference that I started to think about the game again, and pine for the dingy, dank, corridors of Rapture. This got me looking through my old word documents and unearthing the below piece of writing. Written in October, the following is a sample review I attempted for the game. It is a prototype for a lot of the work you’ll see on whatspikelikes, but after re-reading the piece it became clear that it was probably worth bringing to peoples attention. Plus it allows me to update my blog whilst only writing a few paragraphs and adding some snazzy headlines and pictures.
A Bastion Of Laissez-Faire Capitalism
Your eyes flick around the auditorium; you focus your gaze on the statue stood in the middle of the stands. It is a crude approximation of life, twisted and bloody and wrong. Somehow it is moved down a few rows, stalking you across the room. But that’s impossible, isn’t it?
It is 1960. Your plane has crashed in the middle of the ocean; you find yourself alive, underwater, the possessions of your fellow passengers drifting down into the murk below. You scrabble towards the surface and find the ocean aflame, chunks of wreckage disappearing from view. A vast lighthouse stands in the middle of the chaos, a roving light fixing on your location as you swim towards it. Inside the garish hell of the wreckage is forgotten as you find yourself at the entrance to a mysterious Bathysphere, Django Reinhardt’s string led version of ‘La Mer’ enticing you to enter.
To say BioShock starts well is an understatement; the first fifteen minutes of the game are so visceral and so beautifully realised that most other games would struggle to move on from it. It is a testament to the strength of BioShock that it keeps this sense of artistry and urgency going for the duration of the game. In fact the game manages to outdo itself several times over in the first hours of play.
The opening stages are perfectly paced, new weapons, abilities, and set pieces being introduced every few minutes along with morsels of plot relayed by some fantastically produced audio diaries. In fact it is the first two or three hours in Rapture, the underwater city where you get deposited by the Bathysphere, that make it seem like a game of the year. There’s so much going on, so many new concepts, so many fantastic characters and so much beauty to behold that you start to become a little giddy whilst playing.
Just taken on a purely intellectual level, BioShock delivers one of the most fascinating console gaming experiences you’re likely to see. The plot is one of the first things which will draw you into the game, the immediacy of the opening segueing nicely into long dialogues on the theme of the game. The ride down to Rapture in the Bathysphere serves as the games thematic introduction and sets up the major conflict the player is going to be part of.
The game, ostensibly, is a deconstruction of the Objectivist movement started by Ayn Rand which viewed the creation of ideas and the profit generated from them to be all consuming. In the game Andrew Ryan becomes an embodiment of these ideals and flees from the rest of the world in the 1940s building a city under the sea, a bastion of laissez-faire capitalism.
Don’t Show When You Can Tell.
The player finds themselves trapped in Rapture after a civil war over a new scientific discovery, a substance that can alter things on a genetic level called ADAM.
The tale of this civil war is told partially through audio diaries which are dropped around the levels and partially through the mise-en-scene of Rapture itself, newspaper clippings, posters and desecrated corpses all furthering the plot visually. It is hard to think of a game which has as well a thought out back story as BioShock and it gets to the point where the player is more delighted to find a new audio diary than a new kind of weapon, the story of this civil war and of Rapture’s decadent past becoming increasingly interesting as the game goes on.
From Andrew Ryan’s empowering opening monologue onwards the writing never falters, everything is intelligent and interesting and often downright scary. There’s a sense of tragedy to Rapture purely because you get to know a dozen or so characters so intimately, the audio diaries also serve as fantastic ways to build up dread. The chance to listen to certain individuals in isolation far more disturbing than anything else the game has to offer. What comes to mind immediately in this regard are the audio diaries of Doctor Steinman, Rapture’s most coveted plastic surgeon. His discovery of ADAM and desire to bring Cubist ideals to his work are truly disturbing, the idea of abstract plastic surgery becoming far more terrifying than the actual confrontation with Steinman in his lab of horrors.
Implements of Pain and Destruction
Tied to this refreshing intelligence is gameplay which is both rewardingly tactical and surprisingly direct. Due to discovery of ADAM BioShock is loaded with substances known as Tonics and Plasmids. Tonics are just items to be equipped which serve to increase the potency of certain actions. Plasmids are a form of magic within the game giving the players the abilities of fire, ice, electricity, telekinesis, wind, swarms of bees and a whole lot more. You are free to use whichever tonics and Plasmids you want (only the fire and Telekinesis Plasmids are used for puzzles) and as such each encounter with the enemies of the game, the citizens of Rapture mutated by over exposure to ADAM and redubbed Splicers, is different depending on the player.
There’s also a selection of fully customisable weapons in the game, plus a security system which can be hacked to do the fighting for you, plus a wrench if you want to get up close and personal with your foes. The choice these tools give you is incredible, you can fight Splicers head on or choose to hang back and let them fall into your carefully set up security traps. It is perfectly possible to kill most enemies with Telekinesis if you wish; just using the environment to dispense death and destruction, or you could use the grenade launcher and crossbow to mine and tripwire an entire level and let the Splicers meet a more survivalist fate.
During the game you’ll be given three essential Plasmids for free, the rest you have to earn or buy with ADAM. ADAM is very hard to obtain, in fact there’s only one way to obtain it in the game. Created by filtering certain genetic information through a living host ADAM can only be found by confronting creatures known as Little Sister. Little Sisters are the children of Rapture, genetically modified to process ADAM, walking incubators for a bizarre sea slug which produces ADAM. If you wish to buy more Plasmids and Tonics you’ll have to hunt these Little Sisters down. However they are never on their own, they are always followed around by their guardians. Terrifying biomechanical creatures named Big Daddies serve as the Little Sisters bodyguards. Looking like a cross between a Deep Sea Diver and a DIY shop the Big Daddies are perhaps the fiercest opponents in BioShock, the first few encounters most likely proving to be more epic than the player expected. Angry, fast, and nigh on invulnerable the Big Daddies are enough of an obstruction to make ADAM a premium as it is. However BioShock has another wrinkle in regards to Little Sisters.
The Price of Overambition
You have the option to either kill the Little Sister for an increased dose of ADAM or save the Little Sister, reversing the genetic modification, for a smaller dose of ADAM but bigger rewards in the long run. It is an interesting moral dilemma on a surface level, asking the player to choose between their own survival and the well being of an NPC. However the morality of the choice is largely a façade, most players will opt to save the Little Sisters largely because they’ve been conditioned to understand that in videogames the harder initial option usually has the greater reward. It is also something of a faulty moral decision as well, because it is completely black and white. You are either a kitten punching mass murderer or you’re a candy spouting divine saviour, there really is no middle ground to be had. The fact the Little Sisters are little girls is there just to try and bring real world connotations into a work of fiction and give undeserved weight to a rather basic moral choice.
The game makes this lofty choice its figurehead, the ending you get judged totally on whether you chose to save the Little Sisters or harvest them. But aside from a different cinematic at the end whether you choose to save or harvest the Little Sisters has no bearing on the game itself. Whilst at first ADAM is hard to come by, if you’re conservative you can use the ADAM you get for rescuing the Little Sisters to tool yourself us with Plasmids quite effectively, plus rescuing the Little Sisters gives you access to special Plasmids you wouldn’t normally be able to get. When one of the gift Plasmids allows you to control Big Daddies it becomes apparent which option is the more profitable. Having said that, unleashing a Big Daddy onto a group of Splicers is probably the definition of overkill. To be honest, once you get certain Tonics using anything but harsh language can be classed as overkill.
If there’s one thing the game gets wrong, it is the difficulty level. Whilst the game starts off hard enough, once you get yourself some Plasmids and Tonics the game never really makes an attempt to challenge you. The enemies do become more difficult to kill as the game continues, but your options for destruction and sheer brute power pretty much outmatch them from the fourth level on. With plentiful ammo, the ability to alter your base abilities with tonics, and a selection of exceptionally effective plasmids at your disposal the difficulty curve becomes more of a freefall off the side of a cliff. By the second half of the game the weapons only become a necessity for artistic purposes, the almighty wrench proving to be the endbringer in pretty much every encounter. While it is wise to whip out a shotgun for the more stubborn varieties of Big Daddy the game can be completed with judicious use of the initial Electro Bolt Plasmid and your trusty wrench, in fact this method is the most efficient means of defeating enemies in most cases.
It is at once the greatest feature and the curse of free form gaming, you get as much from the game as you put in. Certainly the Hitman series is a classic example of a game that without the proper scope and imagination from the player is needlessly limited, if you’re not willing to think about the possibilities of switching a stage gun for a real gun and dropping a chandelier onto a diplomat then you’re not going to get the optimum experience out of the game. The same thing happens with BioShock, it is feasible that players might never see the depths of BioShock‘s combat system. Certainly you don’t need to set a dozen trip wires, anger a Big Daddy with a solitary gunshot and then laugh maniacally as it charges you, hits the dozen wires of electrical doom, and skids to a dead halt inches from your feet. Similarly you don’t need to set dead cats on fire and use them as projectile weaponry, or take the hat from a Splicer and use it as a lethal weapon; you could just muddle your way through beating every living thing to death.
When A Splicer Asks You If You’re A God, You Say Yes!
One of the major consequences of the easy difficulty is that on later levels it begins to harm the atmosphere of the game. When you start off and are essentially powerless the game is terrifying, each confrontation with a Splicer proving to be potentially deadly. When that potential is met and you find that you’re immortal some of the fear dissipates, despite the general creepiness of Rapture’s inhabitants they really can’t meaningfully hurt you, and any damage you do to them is carried over when you get resurrected so you can guarantee a victory next time.
Even with immortality the game is still fairly scary, the humiliation of death enough to keep you on edge and fearing the hook wielding psychos who stalk you through the dank art deco corridors.
But when you become unstoppable the game begins to throw more and more enemies at you in an attempt to even things out, chatty enemies at that. The first few levels are a cold and solitary experience, silence only interrupted by occasional murmuring in the background or the deadly ring of an activated security system.
The tranquillity lends itself to terror and the lack of action sets you up for some very well designed jump scares. Later on, when you’re balls deep in Splicers at all times, it is hard to get too worried by the game, no matter how creepy the mise-en-scene tries to be. There’s something innately terrifying about being attacked by a silent dentist, which just isn’t there when you’re being stalked by enemies who sing and talk loudly to themselves. Hearing a Splicer sing ‘Jesus Loves Me, This I Know” makes the skin crawl the first time you encounter it, by the eighth time you’re just using it as a tool to hone in on the loudmouth Splicer so that you can use your telekinesis to throw something heavy, and preferably aflame, at him.
The fact that BioShock can still be unbelievably eerie even with the ability to cut down swathes of Splicer at a time is a testament to the design of the game. The developers know how to push the right kind of psychological buttons to panic their players and in doing so they can make the most innocuous occurrences seem almost demonic. When, on the fourth level, a jukebox begins to play “How Much Is That Puppy In The Window” and the player becomes immediately anxious you know that something has been done right.
This entry was posted on March 7, 2008 at 2:01 am and is filed under Button Bashin', Review with tags BioShock, Somewhere Beyond The Sea, XBox 360. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.