Sometimes I realise that I tend to review things I like rather than things I don’t, which is fair enough considering I’m not a professional reviewer. However, just to balance things out, every once in a while I like to be more critical.
Bioshock is a game that has recieved almost unanimous praise, and yet, I come away from the game feeling extremely underwhelmed. Something about it doesn’t feel right to me somehow, which is a shame because I love the concept and the setting.
Maybe it’s coming off the back of the Source engine that Bioshock seems a little bit clunky. The majority of First Person Shooters I’ve played in the past five years have been Valve games on their Source engine. While far from the graphical excess of Crysis or Unreal 3.0, the source engine runs smoothly thanks to years of optimisation and continued development. And I’ll be honest here, I actually find that the Source engine looks much prettier than the over-hyped Unreal 3.0 engine that appears here in Bioshock. Why?
Here in Bioshock, much as in Doom 3, everything, from walls to floors, to people seems to be coated in a horrible shiny plastic look, detracting somewhat from the realism. Clothes and fabric all seem to have the ridiculously bump-mapped texture of shiny concrete. In Source things have some grit, some dirt, and most of all, you can actually see the textures of surfaces and not huge lo-res shiny white highlights every-fucking where.
To skip past my graphical misgivings for a moment, the engine also feels clunky and console-oriented, and your character feels lumbering and slow. This may be realistic, but the result tends to be clumsy combat and this is a shooter so that’s a big problem.
Story wise, Bioshock is about some poor sap whose plane crashes into the sea, but he survives by swimming to a tower strutting out of the water and takes a diving sphere inside down to the seafloor where somehow an entire city has been built (and where somehow it’s a lot brighter than it should be given that it’s the sea floor at night – even with the neon lights of the buildings). His job is then to, uh, survive by shooting people. But wait! Not just with guns, also with CRAZY powers like, WHOOSH FIREBALL! and FZZZZ FREEZERAY! You buy these powers with a kind of genetic currency called Adam.
One of the big things the Bioshock developers liked to show off in previews was the “amazing moral dilemmas” you face in the game on a regular basis. Well, in fact there is only one moral dilemma and it keeps cropping up. After killing a giant lumbering Big Daddy (admittedly an awesome enemy) do you KILL the little Adam-harvesting girl he’s been protecting for maximum Adam, or do you KILL the parasite inside her but let her live for less Adam, but a later reward. Truth be told, the majority of the plasmids you can buy containing powers are a waste of Adam anyway. So I went for the latter.
What’s worse is the fact that you have to shuffle these plasmids in and out of your limited current selection at special machines as you need them, which means you actually end up spending more time selecting them than using them. It’s horrifyingly fiddly too, especially with the mouse lag and other fun performance issues. Speaking of which, for some reason, my laptop, which more than meets specification, has great trouble running this game at an acceptable framerate no matter the resolution or level of detail, and stability is out of the question.
Let’s get back to the actual game then. The weaponry is the usual stuff, but there’s not nearly enough ammo where you need it so you have conserve it and balance weapon-use with plasmids, which is a fair enough mechanism in theory, except that plasmids have their own ammo which actually seems to be even scarcer. So a great deal of the time you’re running around furiously trying to escape your attackers and find some of the supplies you didn’t already pickup which given the maze-like structure of the city, is most often a nightmare. Also, any health pickups other than first aid kits are immediately consumed because there’s no inventory to store them in for later use. That’s pretty dumb.
More annoying still are the unlocking minigames; in order to bypass a steam-powered security helicopter thing or a camera or open a locker, you need to play a little minigame that somehow pauses time and forces you to reroute water through a series of pipes for no apparent reason. Really breaks the suspension of disbelief, although admittedly not as much as the plastic-wrapped enemies. Well, up until you’re jumping up the ceiling to do this unlocking in mid-air whilst supposedly in immediate peril from multiple attackers.
Anyway, the game basically rumbles along rather disjointedly, one minute forcing you down certain avenues, the next giving you free reign to move about (and get lost) and choose which of the several identical objectives to tackle first. These objectives are handed out by a bunch of disembodied voices contacting you via radio, but whatever their intent, they’re all basically just telling you what you’re supposed to do next, and in so doing allowing you to do those things by mysteriously unlocking previously-unavailable paths.
The highlights tend to be the unscripted fights with Big Daddies. Unlike the annoying Splicers who come out of every corner and attack you continuously with a range of abilities that you don’t know they have till the use them (“oh shit, he just vanished and reappeared behind me, it’s one of those ones. AGAIN.”), Big Daddies are simple giant lumbering creatures who won’t attack unless provoked, either by attacking him or threatening the Little Sister he protects. Their armament largely consist of variations on big harpoon guns and drill arms, although they also use their brute strength to charge at you like a rhino. Taking them down is a matter of attrition mostly, but one awesome trick I pulled off once was tricking one Big Daddy to fight another, while I hid and waited to ambush the victor. It was fun fun fun for all the family. But once I had done that, I had to get back to photographing something for some invisible dickhead pervert or other who had decided to tell me what to do for this level.
It’s a shame that the Splicers even exist in my opinion, fighting them is never enjoyable, and hugely repetitive due to their lack of intelligence. It also reduces the “loneliness” factor I expected (a common atmospheric choice in survival horror). I would have enjoyed it more had it been just you, these big bastard diving suits and the city’s automated security systems. Metroid Prime is one game that got that powerful feeling of loneliness just right, being that you were the only human in the entire game. Resident Evil 2 did it as well, although more because its enemies liked to jump out and scare you at the point that the dread was palpable. Bioshock on the other hand just seems to throw Splicer after Splicer at you and these are annoying encounters rather than frightening. The only frightening thing is the fact that once you die you respawn an infinite number of times in a nearby tube and have to run all the way back to where you were with little health, and the same ammo as before, REPEAT AD NASEUM.
So all in all, my assessment of Bioshock is a lot lower than the majority of critics, who seemed to have a much better time with it than I did for some reason. I don’t think it’s a bad game, even though I moaned a lot. I just think it’s a flawed game, a highly flawed game. One whose flaws are obvious and glaring and yet people seem to have ignored them – I’m particularly confused as to why nobody seems to have commented on the ongoing plastic-wrap graphics. Other than its wonderfully atmospheric setting (which again is betrayed by its graphical representation), there isn’t all that much about Bioshock that is radical. Deus Ex, System Shock 2 and Half-Life pretty much do everything this game does, and the youngest of those games came out 7 years prior.
A disappointment then. Alas, such is life.