BioShock, the moody drama-driven FPS for the Xbox 360 and PC, was released last month to rave reviews from the major gaming news sites. Since then the internet has been ablaze with outcry about the game's high rating scores. It's hard to understand why. The work of Ken Levine and Irrational Games on the spiritual successor to System Shock 2 is sublime. It's incredibly atmospheric, the game's story is well written and compellingly told, and the first-person shooter gameplay is a respectable, tightly crafted experience. It's a really, really good game. I'll tell you now: it's a 5/5. So why all the angst? Why the backlash? Read on for my review of BioShock, and a few comments on the dangers of 'merely' being a good game.
- Title: BioShock
- Developer/Publisher: Irrational Games (2K Boston/2K Australia) / 2K
- System:360 (PC)
- Genre: RPG/ FPS Hybrid
- Score: 5/5 - This game is a classic title. It transcends genre, is certain to be a part of many serious gamers' collections, and is definitely worth purchasing.
The setting is gripping, but it's also the least of the player's worries. It can frighten, but the remaining citizens of Rapture - they can kill. And they'll kill cheerfully, too, all the while singing songs and muttering enthusiastically to themselves. These people are lumped together under the generic term 'Splicer', implying their extreme genetic modification. From low-powered thugs in masks through to fire-tossing, teleporting madmen, their strength when wielding a pipe is far outweighed by the impact they can leave on your nerves. Far more threatening than this group of variously-powered miscreants are the iconic monsters of the title: the Big Daddies. Acting as patrons for their ADAM-hording Little Sister companions, these creatures are just as tough as you've been lead to believe. While much of a given level involves stalking from room to room dealing with the slicer infestation, the most memorable moments you'll have probably come from one-on-one combat with the diving-suit clad behemoths. And they are completely memorable. Even taken out of context the Big Daddy is one of the creepiest enemies ever to grace a videogame. Everything, from their low groans, to their thudding footsteps, to their cries of rage when they attack, gets across to you that when you face down a Daddy it's 'for real.' Game on. I particularly like how, as they become more and more damaged, steam escapes the Daddy's suit. The implication seems to be that there's something deeply wrong under that helmet.
That's extremely similar to System Shock 2, of course. In keeping with the spirit of that game, your ability to customize your avatar is expansive. There are actually four tracks of powerups to choose from: plasmids, physical tonics, engineering tonics, and combat tonics. While it might sound like you will be engineering a carefully constructed 'build', I found during the course of play that a particular style just emerged based on what I found most useful. Engineering tonics were the upgrades that most appealed to me, and so I made an effort to gain slots in that area. There are far more tonics than slots available, so even as you bump up your character's potential you'll never find yourself wanting for powers. Making use of these powers in the 'emergent gameplay' style is also equally effortless. While it sounds like work from the outside, when you're playing through the game encounters happen so quickly that you rarely have time to realize that you're doing cool stuff before it happens. That was another reason I particularly enjoyed engineering; emergent gameplay can even happen when you're not around. I regularly returned to an encampment I'd made out of hacked turrets to find that they'd been clearing the stage without me. All I had to do at that point was loot the corpses.
All of these elements probably seem very familiar to veteran gamers, and they very well should. You've probably played a handful of games that had many elements similar to BioShock before. What sets this game apart and above other offerings, though, is the way the title brings it all together. There's almost nothing out of place here. There's no "but the story could have been better" or "the weapons didn't feel right", or "the enemies got boring" to mar the experience of playing this through for the first time. Is it the best game that will be released this year? Possibly. It's certainly the best FPS to be released since Valve's Episode One hit last year.
So where has all the hate come from? Why are there so many posts and protestations on message boards, all claiming that BioShock 'isn't all it was promised to be'? Even Zero Punctuation's analysis of the game (which you should really seriously check out because it's hilarious) takes some cheap shots at the game's purported low difficulty level. It's all for laughs, of course, but it shows up in the review because it's a common complaint among players. The issue is that the restoration capsules scattered throughout the game, which allow you to respawn right after your death, apparently remove the 'challenge' from the game. Others have said in response, "just don't play it that way, that's why there is a quicksave option." That also seems like a strange argument, because it's essentially telling someone they're 'playing wrong'. I don't really think anyone can play a game incorrectly.
The real problem, I think, is that hype has made game players disappointed with games as they're actually delivered. When a game is unexpectedly good, we all marvel over the 'sleeper hit.' There comes a point in a game's marketing, though, when more hype is just too much. The result is that when the game is finally delivered, there's almost no way for the real product to match up with player expectations. After Halo 3 launches later this month, odds are there will be a lot of people in forums nitpicking the slightest flaw or perceived imperfection. The lesson, I think, is that as gamers we need to learn to manage our expectations. I'm really looking forward to Mass Effect, for example, but I don't think it's going to change my life. Really, what can we expect out of a game other than a few hours of enjoyment we might not otherwise have had? Just getting that much out of a game, I think, is a big win for the publisher, the developer, and (of course) the player.