I promised myself that I wouldn't review BioShock. "You've already done your services to modern gaming with that Crysis review," my brain told me. "It doesn't matter how much you loved System Shock 2, BioShock's been covered to death. It doesn't matter how much you want to go out and marry SHODAN, BioShock is off limits."
So, I expressly ignored my brain's edict to write this review, and let me tell you that it was the hardest review I've ever done. It's also the longest on a single game, being over 3,500 words long.
"They told me, 'Son, you're special. You were born to do great things'. You know what? They were right." - Jack, the introduction to BioShock
"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...
Rapture." -Andrew Ryan, BioShock
"A man chooses... a slave obeys." - Andrew Ryan, BioShock
BioShock - A Review
BioShock is a 2007 multi-format first-person shooter/role-playing game, developed and released by 2K Games, previously known as Irrational Games and partially responsible for the seminal classic, System Shock 2.
The year is 1960, and the game starts with the protagonist on board an aeroplane over the Atlantic Ocean. Suddenly, disaster strikes as the plane goes down, landing somewhere in the ocean. After ascending from the icy depths, the protagonist finds himself among the burning remains of the aeroplane, with an ominously placed lighthouse in the background.
Pulling himself out of the water at the base of this lighthouse, the protagonist finds himself in an antechamber, with a huge sculpted image taking precedence, with a banner draped over it, marked, "No Gods or Kings. Only Man," and placards reading, "Science", "Industry" and "Art".
With nowhere else to go, the protagonist climbs into a strategically-placed bathysphere, leading several hundred fathoms into the sea. It transpires that the sculpted image in the entrance chamber was a representation of Andrew Ryan, a man with a dream, a man with a vision.
"Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?" asks Andrew Ryan, as a video shows while the bathysphere descends. With the increasing tendencies for the New Deal government of Franklin D. Roosevelt to nationalise, Andrew Ryan, a captain of industry on the surface and a true personification of capitalist values, felt trapped within a web of bureaucracy and morality. Thus, he felt, the only solution was to create a society that would isolate itself from the corrupting elements of the church and the government - an underwater city named Rapture. In the words of Andrew Ryan, he intends for this to be, "a city where the artist need not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small."
But this dream has gone sour. Rapture lies in ruins after a revolutionary change, with insane monsters lurking the corridors of the city, and it is into this ruined city that the protagonist, Jack, ventures. With only the words of a mysterious man named Atlas to guide him through the world of Rapture, the player must find their way out of the city. But there are mysteries in Rapture that need to be discovered, and the edict of Andrew Ryan still rests over the city, even while it lays in ruins.
And so I begin this review with one of the very greatest strengths of BioShock: the plot. Those of you that have read the reviews that I have previously posted may think that my threshold for what constitutes a good plot is rather low, considering that I tend to start my reviews with some variant of "This plot is fantastic", but it happens that I've mostly reviewed games for which I have a regard for the plot, and I tend to think that the plot in BioShock is more sophisticated than many gamers realise.
Take, for instance, what must have been the state of Rapture before its collapse. The year is 1960, and yet this is a society that has not even heard of Elvis Presley, let alone heard any of his music. This is a world unfamiliar with the triumphs and disasters that only fifteen years of political and scientific environment. This is a society that would never believe that mankind has taken its first endeavours into space.
On returning to the surface, the average citizen of Rapture would have an experience somewhat like a recovered coma patient. Things that they never would have imagined have come to pass; for instance, the first steps have been made towards a united Europe, a dream that only twenty years previous would have seemed impossible. Mankind has not only penetrated the sound barrier, but gone more than three times as fast. Computers have already progressed to the stage where they can predict the results of a presidential election faster and more accurately than a whole team of human counterparts.
Perhaps this was part of Andrew Ryan's ambition, to keep Rapture time-locked as well as free from the corrupting elements of outside society, but the fact remains either way - every year that the citizens of Rapture were to remain underground was one more in which they were to diverge from the technology and progression of the surface. One need only look at the architecture, listen to the music and observe the general details of the society of Rapture to notice this. It's all frozen in a sort of pre-war vision of what the future was supposed to be like, and I find it a great irony that despite Andrew Ryan's insistence that removal of morality was supposed to increase scientific development - read the "Science" plaque on the entrance of Rapture - the people of the surface have made such a great scientific lead over the citizens of Rapture that the society of the underwater city is in an entirely different social era.
I tend to believe that even if prevailing trends inside Rapture hadn't led to its collapse, the society was unsustainable anyway. The society which was intended by its creator to be a utopia, is in fact a dystopia, and in other ways than the obvious ones. An ironic lack of scientific development is a detail which I don't think is necessarily obvious, as is the distinct lack of metal resources in their sub-oceanic city. However, it is the obvious dystopian characteristics which are the talking points of this game, so I'll discuss them in detail.
The first mistake that Andrew Ryan made when he designed his utopian fantasy was the enforced rule proclaiming total lack of contact with the surface. Despite this ruling, there were resourceful people who found their way to the surface and made contact with those above, smuggling in the resources that Rapture so badly needed, as well as external materials, like Bibles, which the anti-religious Andrew Ryan had outlawed. With this, the stage was set for the confrontation between the smugglers, led by the most resourceful and ambitious of them, a man named Frank Fontaine, a former gangster and a man who craved power.
Coupled to this was the discovery of the only thing which Rapture's scientists managed to progress in versus the efforts of those on the surface, and a discovery that would revolutionise life in Rapture. Dr. Tenenbaum, a researcher in Rapture, accidentally discovered the existence of a previously unknown sort of sea slug, which stem cells were harvested from and then modified to work with human bodies, in the form of ADAM, a mutagen developed from these stem cells.
This substance had the power to change the human physiology in drastic ways, and its potential was immediately realised. Soon, the general populace had discovered the wonders of ADAM, and an industry rose around the cosmetic potential of the substance, which stretched as far as granting skills like telekinesis, which operated using a serum called EVE. But the dangers of tampering with a genetic code soon made themselves apparent as the citizens of Rapture became increasingly monstrous and insane.
To be honest, I think this genetic engineering concept is done extremely heavy-handedly and is the weakest part of the plot. This is the point at which it is most glaringly obvious that this game was not designed by scientists, but instead by arts students, who understand the potential hazards of genetic engineering, but not the potential benefits. As a scientist myself, I have both argued for and against genetic engineering at one point or another, but unlike the developers of this game, I went into both arguments with a significant level of research and a higher level of understanding about the processes involved.
Even with the suspension of disbelief required to allow for the biochemical barriers of using another species' stem cells to mutate human ones, the whole story just doesn't add up properly. It seems a bit like scaremongering to me, and while the entire game is vaguely politically focused against free-market capitalism and the hypocrisy of Andrew Ryan, sealing the city off from the outside world while still preaching the word of free-marketism, the game doesn't adequately achieve that focus against the dangers of genetic engineering. The ideas are there, but they aren't as well-executed as the rest of the game.
By befriending the insecure Dr. Tenenbaum, Frank Fontaine was able to get another thing over on Andrew Ryan, and with the future of his fantastic project at stake, Andrew Ryan started to shed his values of free-market capitalism and move to have Frank Fontaine killed, so that he could take over Fontaine's business interests. This action ultimately proved to be useless, as another figure, Atlas, rose up to lead the opposition against Andrew Ryan.
Eventually, the conflict reached fever pitch, as the genetically-altered maniacs, now named "Splicers" (for the genetic term, "gene splicing") revolted against Ryan's control, leaving the city in ruins, and set the stage for the unplanned arrival of Jack.
Why do I think this plot is so strong? In many respects, it's just a facsimile of the previous System Shock 2, which had an outstanding plot in its own right, and one that was more original. However, the focus in BioShock shifts from the focus on the villain in System Shock 2, to a broader plot including revolution, politics and morality. I think the plot in System Shock 2 is stronger, because it's tighter, more well-crafted, but the plot in BioShock has more literary merit, being a loose satire of the works of Ayn Rand, and loosely based on dystopian literature.
The characters are mostly better created in BioShock as well, even if they are largely stereotypical characters, with the exception of the villain, because Andrew Ryan does not have the same sense of dislikeability as SHODAN, who is one of the most cleverly crafted villains in the entirety of video gaming. Because there are less characters in BioShock, more time can be spent on each of them, and while that doesn't exactly create a sense of a well-populated city as the characters of System Shock 2 gave the impression of a fully-crewed starship, it does mean that each of the characters can receive more focus.
Take, for instance, Dr. Steinman. A plastic surgeon whose method of changing bodies has been drastically improved with the onset of ADAM, Steinman has a new theory on beauty, and he's anxious to try it out. Symmetry is regularly described as a characteristic of beauty, but Steinman rejects this notion as he discovers the powers of ADAM. Why, he thinks, should his life be dictated by the traditional standards of beauty? Cue horrifying pictures on the walls of Rapture showing Steinman's "perfect" creatures and markings on the wall, written in blood and noting, "Aesthetics are a moral imperative". Rather against the principles of Andrew Ryan's perfect society to be bringing morals underground, eh, Doctor?
To claim that all of the characters were perfect would be a distinct untruth, however. Dr. Tenenbaum, for instance, sticks to her stereotypical brief completely and, to be brutal, is quite boring, especially for an important character in the overall story.
Despite feeling that the plot is one of the stronger ones in computer gaming history, I do understand that certain gamers will find it shallow and pedantic. Like the plot of Half-Life 2, I feel that a certain degree of the plot is vague and has to be guessed by the gamer, and the method of telling the plot outside of the general details of Rapture worked to great success in the System Shock titles, but doesn't make much sense in this game. A more "old-fashioned" method of delivering the plot, like books or diaries (god forbid that gamers should ever have to read anything, though!) would have made more sense and fitted in with the general aesthetic of the game, with perhaps the occasional audio log scattered around.
The plot ties in perfectly, as it did in System Shock 2, with the atmosphere of the game, although System Shock was by far the more frightening and psychologically-disturbing title. The atmosphere feels like a ruined city would, with the insane roaming the streets and the hold-outs barricading themselves in the only safe areas in town.
One way in which the atmosphere is maintained is by the art direction. As mentioned beforehand, the world of Rapture appears to be time-locked in a vision of the future, circa 1946. As such, pre-war sensibilities survive everywhere, with art-deco elements all around the city of Rapture. Fabulous architecture lies all around the streets of Rapture, but it is, of course, juxtaposed with the devastation of the revolt by Atlas and his men.
The music seems to point to this time-lock as well, as tunes by The Ink Spots and other famous pre-war bands play from the sound systems of Rapture, and of course, this means that popular music has remained the same for nearly fifteen years in Rapture. Couple this with the advertisements and propaganda broadcasts which remain from before the uprising, some which sound oddly foreboding and prophetic, and the sound detail creates one of the most impressive and atmospheric parts of Rapture. All of this is compounded by the claustrophobia that is created by the underwater city. The outside world is so near, and yet so far away, to use the old cliché.
There is another portion of BioShock which is absolutely stunning: the graphics. Being one of the first games to showcase Unreal Engine 3, it showed off the capabilities of the game engine fabulously. They are some of the most polished graphics present on the PC and on the Xbox 360. The introduction shows this off fabulously, with the burning wreckage of your plane falling into the ocean, the flames shining off the ocean surface, and of course, that ominous lighthouse in the distance.
But despite these three characteristics being spot-on, there are other aspects of BioShock which are considerably weaker. Look, for instance, at the gameplay. It is competent, certainly, but not brilliant by any means. It strikes me as quite interesting that for every generation of "Shock" game, the gameplay becomes less advanced versus its competitors in the first-person shooter market. The original System Shock had three-dimensional gameplay, high-resolution graphics and a proper plot in an era when the prevailing trend was two-dimensional gameplay. System Shock 2 had a game engine which had previously been used in Thief: The Dark Project, but the gameplay was certainly more sophisticated than many first-person shooters of the era, possessing the ability to climb up a large amount of terrain without the aid of game scenery, and role-playing elements which actually worked like a role-playing game. I wonder if the next "Shock" game will start channelling Duke Nukem 3D...
For a game which was billed as having role-playing elements, there aren't very many things to prove this billing. Sure, there's the ability to equip a series of plasmids with different effects, but you gain so many game resources that it's possible to equip most of the best plasmids and status-changing tonics in one go. This is a far cry from the days of System Shock 2, where you had to make the best use of your resources, because you could only make a character which conformed to at most two of the primary character types.
In BioShock, however, the player conforms to all three of these character types at the same time, and I can't help but think that this removes a lot of the sophistication of System Shock 2. Being able to shoot perfectly with any gun first time around, equip any plasmid and hack any system removes that essential character customisation of a role-playing game. And that's not even getting to the hugely simplified inventory system, which changes your weapons layout to something strongly resembling just about every other first-person shooter, while also removing the possibilities for advanced strategies by stockpiling things in the inventory.
System Shock 2 was a masterpiece which was sorely underappreciated, so 2K Games obviously decided to show its entire hand at once, thus losing that sophisticated role-playing system which served System Shock 2 so well. OK, there were weaknesses in the skills in System Shock 2, with some being much superior to others, but there was nothing to suggest that it was impossible to tighten up this system, giving more relevance to forgotten skills and generally fixing the role-playing elements where they needed it.
It's not impossible to see who this was done for, either. The Xbox 360, with a less complex control system, had the technical issues of being unable to replicate the advanced control system of System Shock 2 (and I'd love to see their attempt at bringing out a controller that could play the original System Shock without leaving out buttons!). Not only that, but the general audience for this game was not intended to be the players who had played System Shock 2 - as I said, System Shock 2 was an underappreciated masterpiece. Instead, BioShock was intended to be a sales success - a very cynical way of treating the idea of a "Shock" game considering the ideas expressed in the plot which discourage the penny-pinching ways of Andrew Ryan. A case of "do what I say, not as I do"?
The gameplay is flawed in certain other ways as well. The game is not particularly difficult unless you hold to certain self-enforced challenges, as I did, almost completely eschewing the plasmid system. There is a reason for this. Another element of gameplay which returns from System Shock 2 is the prospects of being revived in one of Rapture's Vita-Chambers, but in System Shock 2, the revival service came with a cost, and before revival could commence, the player had to actually seek out said revival chambers. This is not the case in BioShock, where not only are the Vita-Chambers stunningly easy to find, they are activated all at once and do not come with any costs at all, which completely removes the penalty for death that is found in other games.
As I mentioned earlier, I greatly enjoyed the plot in this game and as such, I played this game for the plot and atmosphere, something which was torn quite asunder when the game gave me a conventional final boss. To me, this just seemed overly game-like for an experience which was more like an interactive story, and I was greatly disappointed when I found my standard game mentality having to kick in right at the end of the game. The developers probably could have done something far more clever than what they did do, considering the effort that went into the plot.
My final criticisms of the game relate to that same game engine which provided us with such eye-candy. Despite using the same Havok physics engine which went into Half-Life 2, and a brand new Unreal Engine, I remain distinctly unimpressed with the displays of physics which went into this game. I didn't feel like I was engaging properly with any of the game scenery in the game, despite this being a modern game, where objects should feel like they're being engaged with properly.
The technical flaws with this game go a little further than that as well; the loading times for each map are disgracefully long, considering their size, and considering that there are games from the start of the decade that take just as long to load gigantic island-sized maps (Bohemia Interactive are laughing at you, 2K Games), it's a bit of an embarrassment to the game, overall.
Despite the merely competent gameplay, the logic issues raised by the heavy-handed telling of the dangers of genetic engineering and the fact that the game is not particularly technically advanced, BioShock is a success. Melding a fantastic plot, with elements of literary merit, with an atmosphere par excellence, the game manages to create Rapture brilliantly. I mentioned that it was a sales success, and it deserves to be. It is, perhaps, a triumph of style over substance, but when the style is this good, I can't justify complaining about it.