BioShock (Xbox 360) review
"I'm not normally one for videogame stories, but BioShock's impressed me. Ken Levine and his team at Irrational, if you've managed to miss the sweeping praise, wisely sidestepped the usual Philosophy 101 nonsense while still grasping at a bigger meaning than “aliens are bad”. It's an interactive Xbox 360 condemnation of unfettered capitalism and greed that goes far beyond Metal Gear's soliloquies on cardboard boxes and the meaning of life. Every now-ironic banner lining the city of Rapture procla..."
I'm not normally one for videogame stories, but BioShock's impressed me. Ken Levine and his team at Irrational, if you've managed to miss the sweeping praise, wisely sidestepped the usual Philosophy 101 nonsense while still grasping at a bigger meaning than “aliens are bad”. It's an interactive Xbox 360 condemnation of unfettered capitalism and greed that goes far beyond Metal Gear's soliloquies on cardboard boxes and the meaning of life. Every now-ironic banner lining the city of Rapture proclaims magnificence, and every inch of the game's world drips decay. Shame about the Deus Ex-lite gameplay that keeps BioShock from even coming close its full potential, but I'll have to get what I like about it out of the way before going back to my cynical old self.
Rapture, to fill things in, is the brainchild of wealthy eccentric Andrew Ryan and his distaste for creeping socialism. He decries Washington for claiming that our assets belong to the poor; Moscow for claiming that they belong to everyone; and the Vatican for claiming that they belong to God. Ryan did what any politcally disillusioned man would do: he poured his resources into building the underwater city Rapture and filling it up with the world's best and brightest. All in a day's work, I suppose. The whole thing's built with a lavish art deco look fittingly reminiscent of the decadent twenties. Neon-lit hotels and elaborate casinos tower above the ocean floor, and even the glass tunnels linking the buildings together strike you as a bit overly magnificent.
That sort of thing never works for anyone, of course--ask staffer EmP, he's megalomaniacal enough to have tried--and Ryan doesn't buck the trend. The smallest of lights flicker and those glass tunnels have developed quite the nasty tendency to tear open and let water outside come crashing into Rapture. But even more striking is the fact that the locals have become just as broken as their city. You'll soon come across a lady hunched over a crib, singing “baby and me” with deranged intonation. Only after she rushes at you with a pipe can you peek inside the carriage and realize that she's been cradling a pistol.
You come to realize that biological modification and pursuit of the substance ADAM needed to do it are what's driven these people to madness, though not before you've begun to dabble in it yourself. Easily the highlight of the gameplay is shooting yourself up with all sorts of different syringes and gaining all sorts of new powers. My personal favorite was Insect Swarm. Locals being a bit testy? Send a swarm of bees at them and beat them to death with a wrench while they're flailing about getting stung! Incinerate! and Electro Bolt are a nice one-two punch for the sadists among you: set 'em on fire, and then fry 'em alive when they hop into the water to put themselves out.
I'll be needing Psychiatric Help as downloadable content, Irrational.
I can forgive the use of audio logs as a storytelling crutch even if they're sooo 2004, since the developers are just as good at the Half-Life 2 method of setting up the details without a single word. Stepping into a wharf, the very first thing you're confronted with is a smuggler with the skin torn off his body pinned to a column ahead of you. His crime? Sneaking Bibles into Rapture, suggested not only by the box of them under his feet but the mock-crucifixion pose that he's strung up in. We can't have anyone promoting altruism at the expense of the free market, now can we? Plus, it's a hoot to listen to the mastermind behind the whole city praising absolute capitalism while you watch the locals squabble over unessential resources as their society literally collapses. Ayn Rand is rolling in her grave.
But that is where the heaping praise has to end for me. Somebody out there has to be able to ignore weak gameplay for a good story or else JRPGs wouldn't exist, but that somebody isn't me. For all of the thought and planning that went into BioShock's premise, and for all the billing it's gotten as a thinking man's shooter, the game itself can be downright regressive.
It's full of fetch quests, for starters. Being in the employ of an insane artist and hunting down those who doubt his vision is one thing, but scouring a massive indoor garden for a whole bunch of distilled water and honeybee extract is quite another. It doesn't help that you'll be “about to confront” Ryan three hours into the game and that you'll still be “about to confront” him at the eight mark. Things never go right in Half-Life either, but Half-Life's idea of things going wrong isn't sending you on an hour-long scavenger hunt just to unlock big bad Dr. Breen's office door.
Even once BioShock gets going, it's kept from cogency thanks to a pair of brilliant late game plot twists having no effect on how things actually play out. More striking, and more discussable in a review without ruining the game, is that the much hyped moral choices amount to absolutely nothing. Roaming around Rapture are genetically modified little girls who generate the ADAM that everybody wants and tries to kill them for. I say “tries” because of the Big Daddies, diving-suit clad chaps tasked with nothing else but to protect the little girls. Topple these--not an easy feat thanks to their grenade launchers and rivet guns, though a hallway full of electrified crossbow tripwires works hilariously well--and you're given a choice. Either kill the little girls for a whole lot of ADAM and thus a whole lot of upgrades, or save them from their fate and get just half the amount. Is the personal gain worth being no better than the local loonies that you've been merrily slaughtering by the dozen?
The answer is no, not because of your moral fibre or some ephemeral crap like that but because they end up leaving you enough gifts in random places that you end up with more loot for having saved them. Quite the conundrum now, isn't it? If only my conscience and my avarice could get along like that in real life.
BioShock's RPG system is just as shallow and, to be blunt, it's a bit pointless. You can cram every item in the game into your pockets whether it's a backpack-mounted liquid nitrogen thrower or an armory's worth of 00 buckshot, so it gets a bit annoying that you still have to stop and pick things up one by one by bloody fucking one. Skills can be customized, but it's of little use considering that BioShock's lead may as well be Schwarzenegger in a cashmere sweater. I'm left comparing it to Deus Ex and how I couldn't even shoot straight without specializing; the biggest choice to be made in BioShock is whether you'd like to make your big health bar bigger or the easy hacking minigame easier.
I could go on, and I will. Trivializing even that choice are the facts that:
A) You literally cannot die thanks to Vita-Chambers which bring you back without losing a gunshot of progress, and
B) Hacking involves a minigame so trivial that the choice of whether or not to hack a machine comes down not to whether you're able, but whether you have the patience to match tiles Pipe Dream style for the fifteenth time in a row.
I can't help but feel bad for being harsh on BioShock. I adored the premise, the setting, and need I remind you, the ability to shoot fucking bees at people. It's great that the game outsold Medal of Honor: The Antarctic Campaign, too, since publishers have to have noticed that it's not financial suicide to release what's been billed as a thinking man's FPS game. It's just that once you get past the superficial and actually play it, BioShock isn't one. Treated as an RPG hybrid it's shallow; treated as a pure shooter it's bloated; and treated as either it's marred by some pretty iffy pacing and a failure on the gameplay's part to integrate well with the story.
Maybe the developers just took their own ideas too far. Rapture's great on paper, but I wouldn't recommend you pay the final product a visit.
Community review by mardraum (February 29, 2008)
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