BioShock (360) – Review

BioShock - CoverBioShock, developed by 2K Games Boston/Australia (previously known as Irrational Games) has been stated as a spiritual sequel of System Shock 2, likely one of the best strategic FPS games of past generations. BioShock does an excellent job in capturing many of the elements that made System Shock 2 what it was: using the environment against foes, hacking security systems to your side, choices on what powers to develop further, and the like, while adding in new features to complete the gameplay. While the game is outstanding in both story, visuals, and audio, there are a few gameplay decisions that I question that detract from the difficulty of the game, notably how the player is allowed to take the path of least resistance and is not encouraged or forced to alter a gameplay style learned early in the game in order to complete the game, and which could have been easily tweaked without significant alteration of the game.

BioShock - The underwater city of RaptureStory: A

The game tells the tale of Jack, a passenger on a plane that crashes in the middle of the ocean in 1960. Escaping from the wreckage, he finds a structure that leads to a bathysphere that takes him to Rapture, an underwater city designed by a Andrew Ryan as a utopia away from the rest of the world. However, scientific discoveries that lead to genetic manipulation of the populace has caused the society to fall and the city is in disrepair. The remains of the city’s population roam their world as crazed Splicers, feeding off the dead for their DNA as well as attempting to attack Little Sisters; small girls that take a genetic substance called ADAM from the dead, but are protected by huge figures in diving suits called Big Daddies. As Jack delves into the city with the help of a man called Atlas over a radio, he finds that power struggles had threatened the city prior to the collapse of society, and that Jack’s happenstance is likely more than just coincidence.

Like System Shock 2, the story is told either through radio communications, pre-recorded messages, a handful of flashbacks, or a few times you see the characters in person, but save for intro and outgo movies, this is all done in-game, in-engine. The overall story is a lot more than just the exploration of Rapture, but has a lot of philosophical and political ideas that work throughout the game; idealistic utopias of George Orwell and Ayn Rand are very obvious as themes. My only nit on the story is that while the game opens with what seems to be an underwater city collapsing around the player, this theme is more replaced than overridden by the philosophical issues that arise in the second half of the game; by the end of the game, I wasn’t aware that I was in underwater city, and it would have been nice to see a few more scripted events in the late game to remind the player of this.

BioShock - Using one’s powersGameplay: A

There’s a lot of similarities between BioShock and System Shock 2 in the gameplay. While basically a first-person shooter, with a number of common weapons, you gain abilities through the use of Plasmids that give powers such as telekinesis, electrocution, fire-starting, or the ability to turn enemies against each other; these powers require the use of EVE, a blue liquid that has to be injected to regain power. As you have a limited number of slots that these can fit in, you need to figure out the best combination of Plasmids to be used alongside your weapons to get through the game. There are terminals that allow you swap around any Plasmids that you’ve collected as needed, so a lot of experimentation is possible. In addition to Plasmids, there’s other abilities that you can earn that aid in combat, engineering (hacking and security), and health and recovery. There are a limited number of slots for each of these as well, but can also be configured as needed as with Plasmids.

Plasmids and these abilities must be found or purchased using a substance called ADAM; however, ADAM is only collected by the Little Sisters, and the only way to get to the Little Sisters is to take down the Big Daddys that protect them. Big Daddys are not your run-of-the-mill foe and not only take a lot to bring down, but also pack their own wallop against you; however, unless you harm them, they completely ignore you. This allows you to use the environment and security systems, or the other Splicers, to do the hardest part. Once the Big Daddy is down, you then have a decision whether to outright kill the Little Sister for a lot of ADAM, or to only destroy the part that makes her less than human for a small ADAM bonus but additional rewards down the road. Once you’ve gotten enough ADAM, you’re then set to buy Plasmids and abilities, as well as other stat gains, as various “Gatherer’s Gardens” located around the city.

Besides enemies, you will come across security systems: cameras that will alert turrets and flying guns to your presence. You can try to stealthily move past these, or you can try to hack the systems, a variation on the Pipe Dream game. By hacking or paying off the system, you can have these systems work against your foes. Hacking can be used on most of the equipment around the city to get normally-blocked items or to open safes for additional goodies. Vending machines allow you to buy health packs, EVE needles, and ammo throughout the city, and other machines allow you to combine “junk” you collect off foes to create special ammo and other goodies. Single-use machines can be used to improve one of your weapons by increasing their damage, ammo capacity, or other features. You gain a camera about 25% into the game that allows you to take pictures of enemies to gain research knowledge on them in a Dead Rising approach, either helping you identify their weakness or gaining a benefit when facing them after you’ve taken enough good shots. If you should die, you will be regenerated at a near-by Vita-Chamber, which restores a portion of your health but otherwise leaves you and the level the way they were when you did die.

The game is primarily linear in the main story; in order to progress from section to section, you need to complete certain goals within order within each section. However, you do have the ability to go back at any time to re-explore areas that you may have lacked the ability to before, or to earn money or ADAM needed to get more powerful for some foes.

While the overall direction of gameplay is straightforward, the game gives you to the opportunity to try a number of different means to dispatch the foes. Like System Shock 2, ammo nor EVE is not as plentiful as in other FPS games, so any means you can use the environment and other foes can be used to help keep these somewhat scarce resources for the times you need them. Traps can be set using proximity mines or electrified tripwires, there are barrels and other objects that will explode to do damage to those nearby, and security systems and bots can be hacked to attack any enemies. You have plasmid powers that will turn security and foes on each other, or even have them temporarily work for you, all meaning that if you spend the time, you nary have to spend a bullet to get by some areas.

BioShock - Facing off against a Big DaddyHowever, and this is where I think the gameplay gets a notch down, is that while the game works to support all this type of play, you can also get by simply with the infinite use wrench, thanks to several plasmids and abilities, and the existence of the Vita-Chambers. Very early in the game, you’re taught the “1-2” combo – electrify a foe, and then whack them with a wrench to do a good deal of damage more than if the opponent wasn’t stun. This combo continues to work through most of the rest of the game, getting stronger and more effective as you gain the more powerful versions of the electrocution plasmid and with abilities that increase your wrench power and speed, as well as a few others. This has the additionally effect that you are basically running about collecting tons of ammo that you aren’t using and other goodies off the dead, and thus when you really need to pull out a gun, you have more than plenty to use. There are foes this does not work effectively against – some Splicers will have electricity resistance and thus take a different approach, and Big Daddys are a lot tougher than this attack. Also, if you get more than a couple of Splicers closing on you, its very difficult to survive such situations. Normally, this is what one would expect, that eventually you need to move away from the base weapons and advance towards the more powerful ones, otherwise you’d die a lot as the number of foes attacking you simultaneously grew. But that’s where the Vita-Chambers enter the picture. Because there’s no cost for being revived at one, the only expenditure for dying is the loss of time it takes to get back to where you were, and sometimes, the chance to free a Little Sister if you were fighting its Protector. So, as I found as I played the game, that because the method I learned way back from the start (the “1-2” punch) worked even if I died and came back, I had no incentive for changing my play style. Again, I note that the game allows for numerous ways, and I know that it can be fun to set up big traps and wait for the foes to enter them, but that’s great once you know what’s going to happen. On a first run through, as long as something works and you’re given no incentive to correct it as the game gets more “difficult”, its very likely that the player’s going to stick to what works. To that end, the last third of the game felt repetitive, the same environments dealing with just larger numbers of foes with the stun and wrench combo.

This isn’t a situation that the developers couldn’t back away from; instead, the only change I would have made in order to encourage more use of the other weapons and tools would have been to make the Vita-Chamber cost something to use, either as upfront fees for the amount of times you can use it, or taking away an amount of your cash each time it happened. In either case, using the Vita-Chamber would now cost a limited resource, and thus you would approach more enemy situations as “do I spend the time to set up a trap” or “do I barge in with a chance of going down but I’m ok with what that would cost me”? I think the Vita-Chambers had to stay in the game; I know that System Shock 2 is incredibly hard in the first several levels as dying required a restart from a fixed point, and thus the Vita-Chambers help to make the game quickly accessible to new players without penalizing them. However, tweaking their operation as to make it become their use critical in the late game, and having the player balance between money, equipment, and the chance to be regenerated, would have really helped tighten the game and require the player to explore more than just one or two ways to take down their enemies.

Another potential issue is that while the game has the feel of System Shock 2 and Deus Ex, there’s no point where you feel you have to make an irreversible choice beyond how to deal with the Little Sisters. You have an unlimited inventory beyond maximum counts for ammo, money, and other tools, so it feels like you can pick up things willy-nilly from corpses and crates around the levels. Furthermore, when you buy upgrades with ADAM, you initially may find that you have determine which plasmids you want, but by the end of the game, even if you only rescue the Little Sisters, you’ll have sufficient ADAM to buy all the plasmids and other abilities within the game. These lack of limitations doesn’t help urge me to want to play the game again to try a different approach, since I know by the end I’ll have exactly the same set of weapons and powers. Again, some tweaks to gameplay would have helped this area here.

Controls on the 360 are pretty much straight forward. Weapon and plasmid cycling can be done using the shoulder buttons but also these can be held to bring up a “selection wheel” (such as in Ratchet and Clank) to select which weapon or power you want to use.

Value/Replayability: A-

The game took me a bit under 20 hours to complete, which given that there were a few late-game pacing problems, felt about right without being excessive. There’s no multiplayer element, but there are three difficulty levels and several achievements that require a bit of effort to complete. But as noted before, a replay won’t likely change what choices you make in the end, only the methods of how you go about dispatching foes; the game’s story won’t change, and the missions will remain the same.

Graphics: A

The game is definitely a visual treat; at least through several of the early levels as you see the Art Deco stylings of a then-futurist metropolis. Water effects are very well done. There’s a few points where the game lost a few frames in rendering when a lot was going on but for the most part keeps the drawing rate up high. The last part of the game somewhat loses the same awe and wonderment in the first several levels, possibly as the underwater city motif of the story is replaced by a psychological story.

Audio: A+

The game’s voice actors are very well done (the crazed people sound crazy indeed), and the added effects of radio static really help on immersing the environment. Other atmospherics, such as strained meta, bubbling from outside the glass that keeps the ocean out, the occasional orca whale song, and the like, do help to remind you that you’re underwater. Sound plays a big deal in dealing with security systems and stealth; you can hear the state and status of cameras and other machinations while hiding as to make necessary steps to take them out quietly. Background music is well done, helped by the inclusion of popular hits from back in that era that play from phonographs, sometimes at very odd times (like the start of a battle).

Overall: A

BioShock is a well done game, with a great story and a lot of ideas borrowed from Irrational’s System Shock 2 to almost make this a recreation of that gaming experience. There are some gameplay issues that they could have tweaked just a few notches to make the game less easier and requiring some significant decisions on the player’s part of how to proceed, as to make the gameplay element nearly perfect – it still allows for the player to choose his route of success and to use the environment to their advantage, its just that there is no incentive for the player to try alternate methods. It may not be a perfect game, but it does make it one of the best FPS games out there with elements that hopefully will be incorporated into future FPS titles.

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