Monday 19 April 2010

BioShock 1 & 2

BioShock (August 2007) and BioShock 2 (February 2010) are first person shooters published by 2K Games.

According to Metacritic scores, the original game is perceived as better than the later release, and I've got to concur. BioShock 2 feels more like a mission pack and doesn't add enough to warrant the full-price retail cost of a PC game. If I was more into multiplayer (versus) modes, I may think differently, as this is only available in BioShock 2.

By far the strongest feature of the games is the setting and backstory: Rapture is a secret underwater city built immediately after the Second World War by business magnate Andrew Ryan, who is disillusioned with the new world order. Scientific breakthroughs by geneticists brought to Rapture by Ryan lead to the development of "plasmids": enhancements that give the users superhuman abilities, powered by substances named Adam and Eve. Civil war breaks out in 1959 as the city descends into chaos over control of these substances. You, the player, are apparently the sole survivor of a mid-Atlantic plane crash in 1960. Swimming to an isolated lighthouse, you descend to Rapture in a deserted bathysphere...

The gameplay is 90% classic first person shooter with an array of mid-twentieth century firearms, but also a collection of increasingly powerful plasmids such are Incinerate and Electrobolt. Use of environmental features are encouraged: electrically zapping enemies who are standing in water often results in an instant kill.

Games involve meaningful choice; and here, this includes what weapons, skills and plasmids to enhance with your limited resources. This, in turn, affects how you play various set pieces: do you go in guns ablazing, or hack security systems to attack enemies, or be more stealthy and keep your distance?

The story is very linear with few meaningful ethical choices that have substantial impact to the storyline. Any ethical decisions you do make (such as rescuing or harvesting Little Sisters) are tallied up to decide which of a limited set of end-of-game cut-scenes to play.

However, there is a great deal of ethical and philosophical discussion within the game, with much reference to Ayn Rand (c.f. Andrew Ryan). But this is mostly exposition, and listening to the various audio recordings may improve your mind, but won't improve your ability to head-shot a Splicer at thirty paces. There are obviously lots of oblique references to religion ("Rapture", "cult", "Adam" and "Eve") but they feel quite Matrix-esque in that they could just be labels and archetypes doled out by developers without much thought or depth.

The art design is superb, and the use of water effects (on high-spec hardware) masterful. It was a little disappointing that they didn't make more use of the "external" underwater sequences in the second game. I was expecting lots of outside floaty-floaty, shooty-shooty when the harpoon weapon cropped up. But no: just walk from A to B. Slowly.

Vita-Chambers are obviously a contentious feature with a certain section of the community: the makers released a software patch which allows them to be turned off. Essentially they are implicit save points. Every time you "die," you go back to the nearest Vita-Chamber with all your possessions and skills, but only partial health and a small ammo top-up. This means you can clear patches of difficult enemies even if you continually die just by chipping away at the proverbial block.

One thing that really jarred the first time I came across it was the hacking minigame in the first game. This is pretty much a level from Pipe Mania. The difficulty is controlled (by the game) via the water speed and by adding "bomb" tiles; but these can be mitigated by buying power-ups. It's just such a change of pace, and although the "water in pipes" theme fits in with the game world on paper, it still tends to jar. Maybe it's the sudden switch from 3D world to 2D abstraction. Even the game's creative director Ken Levine thinks "It's a little out there." For whatever reason, the minigame is replaced by a more twitchy "stop the swing-o-meter" alternative in BioShock 2.

Overall, BioShock is a good FPS that scores well on originality of setting. But it lacks the variety of Half Life 2 (which is a better game and scores more on Metacritic) and seems to be running out of steam in BioShock 2. Perhaps the novelty and courage of setting an FPS on Earth in 1960 cannot carry it much beyond a single incarnation. Having said that, BioShock 3 is supposedly in production.

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