I recently finished the critically acclaimed video game BioShock on my PC, which currently holds an impressive score of 96 over at Metacritic. So my expectations were high coming into it; the setting seemed intriguing, and I’d heard good things about the art style and narrative. Unlike FEAR, a game I burned myself out on last year (and of which you can read my rash and opinionated review of here), this wouldn’t be just another FPS game.
You play Jack, a – as in FEAR – mute and generally identity-less protagonist, and you find yourself trapped in the remnants of an attempted underwater utopia dubbed Rapture. Rapture was built on the philosophy of controversial semi-philosopher Ayn Rand, in the guise of the fictitious entrepreneur Andrew Ryan, the game’s main antagonist. You must fight your way through the ruins of this failed society and make your way to the surface world, and in so doing will also learn more of how exactly Rapture fell. The main enemies in the game are citizens of Rapture who’ve fallen victim to addictive gene modification and in the process lost their sanity slash humanity.
You can kill things by using several different weapons, as well as modifying your own genes (as the mad citizens have done) to get access to some more extraordinary powers, though the wrench – the first weapon you get in the game – turns out to be one of the most efficient and reliable weapons to use.
The narrative in the game is mainly brought to you by stumbling over audio diaries made by different citizens of Rapture, though usually these are from citizens with important roles and some authority, people who’ve worked behind the scenes of Rapture, as opposed to everyday citizens. Now and then you’ll also be witness to past events being reenacted by ghostly figures, though these occur (unfortunately) very rarely. The third main way in which the narrative is brought to you is through your two-way radio, which some still-alive figures of Rapture use to communicate with you.
Unfortunately, I ended up being rather disappointed with this game.
As I kept playing it, it started to seem more and more like just another FPS game, albeit with a story and setting that’s a bit more interesting than the standards in the genre. You basically play the game by making it from point A to point B – with some backtracking and hidden or optional locations thrown in – and killing everything that stands in your way. But as an FPS game, it feels a li’l clunky. The long range weapons aren’t always quite right; if you’re behind some sort of bars and shooting someone on the other side in-between the bars it doesn’t always work, even if there’s a big gap and you have a clear shot. And the aiming can generally feel a bit off in general. So if you want a fast-paced and precise FPS game, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere.
I’d expected the story to be more engrossing, but in the end I felt it was hidden under a few too many dead bodies. (Which occasionally wave at you.) Too much time seemed to pass between each narrative piece, with the space between each such piece being filled up with wrenching a few dozen enemies to death. The enemies also re-spawn, and I’m a bit of a slow player; I like to take in the sights and make sure I haven’t missed anything. This might’ve meant I had to fight more enemies than the average player making his or her way through the game, with more enemies re-spawning due to me taking my time, and in effect creating a greater distance between each narrative piece than was intended by the developers.
And as with FEAR, I never really felt very connected with the character I was playing; you never hear him talk and you don’t find out too much about his background or who he is as a person. Therefore I was never able to care much about him, and some of the narrative events which were supposed to be dramatic and suspenseful left me cold. As the game progressed and I had wrenched my way through a few hundred enemies or so, I eventually started amusing myself by pretending I was Batman, and that I had come to kill every last survivor of Rapture using a wrench. Which is sort of how the game plays like: you go around killing everything with a wrench. And that’s totally what Batman would do, right? Or perhaps Jack also became crazy from modifying his own genes, and came to believe himself to be Batman who’s on a crazy mission to cleanse the filth from Rapture using a wrench.
And the game’s ending was fairly disappointing. After putting several hours into the game, I was treated to a brief cinematic which showed me a future for Jack which seemed somewhat… creepy and unbelievable, given what I had experienced through the game. For the record, there are two and a half different endings; two bad ones (which are more or less identical, only with different vocal performances), and a good one. I got the good one.
The game isn’t bad though, but it doesn’t really do anything particularly well either. If you want a good FPS game, there are other games out there that are better than this. If you want a game with a good story or characters, there are also other, better games out there. But if you want both at once, plus the remains of an attempted underwater utopia, this might be one of the best deals you can get. Why this game got as much praise as it did from the critics is beyond me, but at least Mike Doolittle from GameCritics.com seems to share and express some of my own sentiments in his review of the game:
BioShock is not a revolutionary game, or even a particularly innovative one; by the time I reached the end, I felt as though I had played a rather standard and predictable first-person shooter.
There are also plans of making the game into a film, which I’m mildly optimistic about. The story and setting are genuinely interesting, and tackling them in a more traditionally narrative art form might help bring them out. Though of course, the history of video game movie adaptations isn’t exactly a proud one.