Review: Bioshock

A few weeks ago I wrote about Bioshock‘s brilliant plot twist, at which time I had not yet completed the entire game. Now that I have done just that I can start to form an opinion of this unusual game.

Bioshock drops you into the nightmarish underwater city of Rapture, where the inhabitants have fallen into civil war and madness following unrestrained genetic experimentation. While the story weaves its way through the art deco environments in a loose manner, gameplay consists of killing every single person you encounter using a variety of weapons that begin with the standard line-up (pistol, machine gun, shotgun) and soon expand into more imaginative contraptions. Livening things up are ‘plasmids’, a selection of magical powers that can freeze, electrocute, confuse and otherwise harm your enemies.

Combat is fun and varied thanks to the wide array of combat tactics, although once you have a full load-out it does sometimes turn into a mess of explosions as you simply fire everything you’ve got, safe in the knowledge that Rapture is filled to bursting with readily available ammunition. There’s rarely much challenge to the combat, partly due to the abundance of resources and also thanks to the player’s ability to resurrect in nearby ‘vita chambers’. Oddly, none of the other citizens of Rapture seem to ever make use of these handy inventions – given the amount of hacking going on, you’d think at least some of them would have figured it out.

There is a perception that Bioshock offers a post-modern analysis of the more generic aspects of the FPS genre, while offering its own fresh angle. I don’t really accept this as, other than the unusual setting and superb self-analytical plot twist, it is a largely very traditional game that brings few new innovations to the table. The weapons/magic powers balance has featured in RPG games for years and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic had an almost identical combat system a year-or-two before Bioshock was released – just replace Bioshock‘s guns with swords and you’re there. The multi-power, multi-solution approach to combat in an FPS was first innovated by Deus Ex, of course, which offered a much deeper and more strategic system.

In the story department Bioshock is a curiously mixed bag. Rapture is a fascinating place, with much of the storytelling taking place through incidental set design, the first time I’ve really seen this accomplished successfully outside of Half Life 2. Elsewhere the storytelling is rather forced, relying on audio diaries and radio transmissions to such an extent that there seems to be two ongoing experiences – the visuals being full of combat while story is relegated almost entirely to audio. The pacing leaves much to be desired, with the first third feeling rather aimless (at least first time through) and the dark and scary environments becoming overwhelming and a little too familiar. It’s not until you arrive at the city’s lush, green park that the art design and story really mesh, leading to a middle third that is frequently staggering in its ambitious vision.

The problem is that Bioshock seems to accuse the genre of being narratively stale without really offering any solutions – after the astonishingly effective build-up to the plot twist, the game seems to suddenly forget its own primary themes, becoming ever more generic until it ends, disappointingly, with a highly derivative ‘boss battle’ that would be more at home in something like Prey. Unless I’m vastly underestimating the developer’s capability for irony, the game seems to mimic the fate of Rapture itself, which began as an effort to escape the perceived limiations of established society but ultimately fell prey to the very restrictions that creator Andrew Ryan so hated.

The end result is a triumph of visual and sound design, solid if uninspired combat  and an intriguing but fumbled story. If you can tolerate the drifting pace of the opening half, then it’s worth sticking around for the superb twist. Despite my reservations, Bioshock succeeds in raising discussion of Ayn Rand and Objectivism, of idealism and extremism, the worth of charity and the value of trust – it has more questions than most other games combined and is worth celebrating for that fact alone. Just don’t expect the game to always provide satisfactory answers.

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