8 April 2010

Review: Bioshock

Posted by Ryan Anderson

When Bioshock came out, I heard rave reviews about its revolutionary gameplay, deep storyline, tough moral choices, arresting visuals and general awesomeness. So of course, when I decided to give in to my old gaming addiction and get an XBox 360, it was near the top of the list of games I wanted.

Well, I just finished playing and sadly, I was pretty underwhelmed.

The premise of the game is that in 1960, your character’s plane crashes in the middle of the ocean. You survive and find a bathysphere that takes you down to Rapture: an undersea city built by a man named Andrew Ryan as a sort of Randian laissez-faire paradise.

I am Andrew Ryan and I am here to ask you a question:
Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?

No, says the man in Washington; it belongs to the poor.
No, says the man in the Vatican; it belongs to God.
No, says the man in Moscow; it belongs to everyone.

I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something
different. I chose the impossible. I chose…


A city where the artist would not fear the censor.
Where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality.
Where the great would not be constrained by the small.
And with the sweat of your brow,
Rapture can become your city as well.

-Andrew Ryan

But immediately it becomes clear that all is not well in Rapture. Everyone you meet is insane and tries to kill you, thanks to rampant addiction to ADAM, a substance that allows people to regenerate and rewrite their genetic code using “plasmids”.

As you progress through the game, you collect various weapons as well as various plasmids that give you abilities like telekinesis, or the ability to throw lightning, fire, or even swarms of insects at your enemies. To gain plasmids, you need to get ADAM, which is collected from dead bodies by the “little sisters”: little girls who have been mentally programmed to extract ADAM with wicked-looking syringes. The little sisters are protected by “big daddies”, which are huge, groaning, heavily modified humans in armored diving suits.

The little sisters are impervious to all of your weapons, which made me wonder why exactly they need Big Daddies to protect them. But in any case, once you have dispatched a Big Daddy, there are two ways to get ADAM from the little sister. The first way is to “harvest” her, which gives you lots of ADAM but also kills her. The other way is to “rescue” her, turning her back into a normal little girl. This gives you less ADAM, but you are repaid with gifts and assistance from the rescued girls.

The decision whether or not to kill the little girls is really the only moral choice that you make in the game, and it doesn’t change much, other than the ending cinematic.

A little sister prepares to harvest ADAM from a corpse, while her Big Daddy protects her.

The plot of the game is almost entirely backstory. There are some interesting twists toward the latter part of the game, but really the game boils down to killing everyone in each level and perhaps collecting some items in the process that allow you to progress to the next level. In the process you come across various tape recordings from key characters that reveals some of the events prior to your arrival at Rapture. These eventually come together to reveal what sounds like an interesting story, but my complaint is that the player is not really an active part of that story! In fact, much is made in the game of how little the character has to say in what he does.

I would much rather have seen the game set before all hell broke loose in the city. The player could choose which of the various factions to side with, and there would have been lots of interesting moral choices to make that would actually shape the fate of the city. But instead everything has happened already and you just run around trying to survive and make sense of it. By placing the player in a mostly passive role, it took away a lot of the potential depth to the story for me.

The game’s strongest point was definitely the visuals. Rapture is undeniably a cool-looking place, with a neat combination of art-deco and steampunk influences. The environment is very “elemental” with lots of fire, water and electricity, and ice and this is mirrored in some of the plasmids that you can collect. And of course, the Big Daddy/Little Sister combination is visually striking.

Since this is ostensibly a science blog, I should say something about the science of the game, but really, this is more fantasy than science fiction. I think we all know that you can’t genetically modify someone to shoot fire out of their fingertips and that a city at the bottom of the ocean is not really practical. Also, you can’t genetically modify an organism “on the fly” by jabbing a syringe in its forearm. Any given individual is pretty much stuck with their original genes, at least as far as my understanding of genetics goes.

There is one glaring error that I have to mention, even though it is a nitpick. At one point, you encounter a bunch of ice, and you are told that the ocean water is so cold that when it leaks into the city it freezes solid. This is total BS. The bottom of the ocean is above freezing, and as you may remember, ocean water is salty so it freezes at a lower temperature. It’s true that supercooled water can be liquid under pressure and freeze when depressurized, but it doesn’t make much sense for it to freeze when it encounters the warmer environment inside the city.

Anyway, Bioshock was a very cool-looking game with an interesting backstory, but ultimately it didn’t live up to the hype. The game itself felt quite shallow to me. The moral choice was not particularly interesting or consequential and the gameplay boiled down to killing everything on each level. The main characters were all caricatures with little depth, and the player was essentially passive, with little choice about how to proceed. Without giving anything away, I’ll also say that I found the end of the game to be surprisingly abrupt and anticlimactic (and easy).

The plasmids basically just served as a different set of guns, so I didn’t think they really changed the gameplay that much. The enemies on each level didn’t offer much variety, and the ability to respawn every time you die made it easy to just throw caution to the wind and attack without strategy until they were all dead.

Maybe my hopes were too high and I expected too much from a shooter game. I think it’s clear that I’m more of a RPG person, and maybe that’s the main problem I had with Bioshock. But then again, I enjoyed the first two Halo games. In any case, Bioshock was fun, but ultimately for me it didn’t live up to the hype.