Game Description: BioShock lets you do the impossible as you explore a mysterious underwater city. When your plane crashes, you discover Rapture—an underwater Utopia torn apart by civil war. Caught between powerful forces and hunted down by genetically modified "splicers" and deadly security systems, you have to come to grips with a deadly, mysterious world filled with powerful technology and fascinating characters. As little girls loot the dead, and biologically mutated citizens ambush you at every turn. Now you're trapped, caught in the middle of a genetic war that will challenge both your capacity to survive and your moral allegiance to your own humanity. Make meaningful and mature decisions that culminate in the grand question—do you exploit the innocent survivors of Rapture to save yourself—or risk all to become their savior?
BioShock is a simple, straightforward first-person shooter (FPS) dressed up in next-generation trappings and superb artistic design. There are numerous distractions attempting to draw the player's eye away from the basic formula at its heart, but really, that's all it is.
Is there anything wrong with this? Well-polished, enjoyably playable games are always welcome amidst the scores of shoddy cash-ins, inspiration-free clones and unrealistically ambitious projects needing six more months of development (but not getting them) before hitting retail. In this context, it's easy to appreciate BioShock as a strong effort.
On the other hand, I can't help but feel a little disappointed that there isn't more to it. In all fairness, there's nothing really wrong with the experience it provides; it just lacks the sort of vision and hook truly memorable games possess underneath the graphics, physics and sound effects. During my time in the undersea world of Rapture, there were many small occurrences that didn't mean much on their own. But, when added together and taken in total, the ability to become engrossed in the adventure was chipped away until all that was left was an underlying desire for completion. It's as good a reason to play a game as any, but perhaps not the most satisfying.
The most serious issue is that BioShock's character development and dramatic narrative never come together. The "silent protagonist" approach is rife with its own set of dangers, these problems only magnified by choices like having an absurd number of passive audio journals waiting to be picked up, or the absence of any real conversations. Even worse, a huge blow was struck against believability in the opening moments, setting the tone for the rest to come:
After arriving in Rapture, my character happens upon a glowing syringe. Rather than questioning its contents or waiting for a clue or verbal order from someone else, this mysterious substance is immediately and illogically self-injected on a whim. Not only does this action fly in the face of common sense, but when the ability to generate electricity is imparted, my character has no reaction and makes no comment. There's no sense of fear, or even of awe. As a player, how can I be expected to give events in BioShock any credence or weight when the person I'm supposed to be playing as doesn't?
Further undermining intellectual buy-in, the much-discussed inclusion of Little Sisters as a catalyst for triggering moral choices falls incredibly flat. Reduced to a repeated resource-gathering scenario, the "good" or "evil" in capturing these carbon-copy moppets seems to be solely based on whether the player has any empathy for the iconic visual representation of a small girl. It may give pause the first time, but when every subsequent encounter is revealed to be an exact duplicate with neither the action nor the individual having any unique quality, all impact is negated.
Although these can be taken as fairly high-level criticisms of things that many games wouldn't even have attempted, BioShock also suffers from other issues that hold it back in ways besides the intellectual.
Seeing the game lapse almost immediately into a series of fetchquests without the proper motivation was offputting. Some may claim that the game accounts for this later on, but to me it was too little, too late. In addition, despite the superb realization of the period through architecture, music selection and voice acting, it was hard to escape the sensation that most of my time was spent in a series of corridors and abstract areas. Since the game failed to create a place where I believed geniuses could congregate under the sea, I was left to admire specific elements while being unconvinced of the whole.
Finally, the egregious multitude of power-ups available could have been a significant addition to the mix, but again, their handling lacked the weight and importance needed to raise these systems above the level of idle toolgathering. Between Plasmids, Tonics, Photos, Inventions, Hacking, Weapon Upgrading, Ammunition Types and simply picking up audio logs or the millions of items strewn throughout every environment, there were too many things to be distracted by, with none of them feeling as vital or important as they should be.
So what does BioShock do right? It looks great, it sounds great, and it absolutely knows which genre it's in. The difficulty is quite reasonable (and adjustable as well) so I'd actually say that it's a great place for beginners or people who don't have a lot of FPS exposure to start. Beyond this, my feeling is that it doesn't do much beside meet the usual expectations. Without the kind of adrenaline-inducing pace that carries action blockbusters or the kind of emotionally involving characterization that can sustain a slower think-piece, BioShock certainly satisfies the standard FPS criteria but falls short of carving itself a place in the top tier.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
HIGH Wonderful art style & environment.
LOW Game feels too easy at points.
WTF I didn't realize so many people in the 50s kept audio diaries and left them laying around in random boxes, air vents, and dead bodies.
Alfred Hitchcock once said, "There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it." I've always enjoyed the sensation of my heart beating a little faster more than having the daylights scared out of me. As a player, I become much more engaged by a crescendo of tension rather than a sudden "HOLY CRAP" moment, although those can also be enjoyable. However, suspense is a difficult thing to effectively portray in any medium, sitting on a fine line between outright boredom and "OH SHI-." Walking that line is a difficult task, but fortunately for us BioShock handles it quite deftly. Is it gaming perfection? No. Is it a thoroughly enjoyable experience? Absolutely.
The aesthetics of BioShock are nothing short of superb. The player is thrown into the world of Rapture, a massive undersea city that has been ruined by unchecked genetic modification and greed. Rapture is a truly terrible place; most of its citizens have succumbed to raving mania, and the ones that haven't are locked in a deadly power struggle (insert mandatory joke about the U.S. Congress here). From the moment I set foot in Rapture everything around me was screaming "dystopia"—not literally of course, but there are quite a few screams to be heard. The dimly lit and decrepit port where I entered the city was complete with crumbling pillars, burning chunks of the floor, and a few crazies walking around. This is just a taste of the visual treat that is BioShock—the surgical wing, the night club, and the creepiest farmer's market ever all awaited me. The Sixth Sense-esque "ghost" sequences are another great part of Rapture's décor, showing a few backstory elements through spectral visages triggered by going through a specific area. The only downside is that there aren't enough of them. I really wish these had been used more in addition to the audio diaries, as they were great for setting an area's mood. The soundscapes also do an excellent job of capturing the essence of anarchy in Rapture, from the frantic ramblings of the remaining citizens to the heavy groans of the Big Daddies (the big mechanical creatures on the box cover) to the faint sounds of the city walls succumbing to the water pressure. The sights and sounds of the game make Rapture a masterfully steampunkified setting for the game's narrative.
I usually find that the best game stories are those that will constantly prod the player, compelling him to continue onward in a game he otherwise would have no interest in. The excellent writing of BioShock accomplishes this task with flying colors, as the game leans on its story to keep the player engaged from start to finish. There was never any point that I became disinterested or bored, as plot points developed at frequent enough intervals to keep me intrigued. Plot and character development is accomplished in large part through a series of audio diaries the player finds in seemingly random places, along with radio messages and the ghost encounters mentioned earlier. I actually found myself looking forward to receiving new diaries/messages, even stopping to listen to them in some instances. Another interesting aspect is that with all the diaries and radio messages there was very little face-to-face interaction with non-player characters, but this did not hamper things in the slightest, as I sympathized with the characters I was supposed to sympathize with, loathed the ones I was supposed to loathe, and was able to follow every plot detail. To discuss any specifics would be an injustice, so I'll just say that the BioShock story is extremely good, and a treat (or an insult depending on how you think it was interpreted) for any Ayn Rand fans that might happen to come across it.
Combat is nothing extraordinary but mostly enjoyable nonetheless. Along with the garden variety guns to choose from, there are also the plasmids (spells) which give a little variety to taking down opponents. As I progressed further into the game I found myself enjoying the plasmids more and more—things like setting fire to an enemy and watching him run right into another group of bad guys standing on an oil slick (along with the ensuing 15 seconds of roasted hijinks), or hypnotizing a Big Daddy and watching him wreak havoc on my behalf were immensely satisfying. There are however a few combat-related drawbacks, mostly pertaining to the use of the plasmids. It was frustrating when after receiving a new plasmid I was forced to choose between the new acquisition and the ones I already had since I did not have enough plasmid slots; then I had to find a Gene Bank in order to switch out plasmids. It was even more annoying when after choosing to dispense with, say, the fire attack I came upon three enemies standing on an oil slick just begging to be ignited. It is truly a cruel game that forces one to choose between setting people on fire or unleashing a horde of killer bees in their general direction.
While it has some minor flaws here and there, BioShock's biggest selling point is style, and it does not disappoint. Revolutionary? No. Solid title that was worth my time? You bet. Using sentence fragments to illustrate a contrast between viewpoints? Oh hell yes.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via Steam download and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 15 hours of play was devoted to completing the game once.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence. There is a lot here that I wouldn't want to expose a child to, especially the more startling moments. I could easily see a 6-year-old getting nightmares from a game like this.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: All of the game's dialog is subtitled and most of it can be reviewed at leisure, but ambient sounds and music do play a large role in the overall experience.
BioShock has undoubtedly been one of the most hotly anticipated titles of the year, and its release to unanimous critical acclaim is certainly helping to solidify its place as a soon-to-be-classic. I've been playing the game since its release day, and I'm enjoying it a lot. I'll be writing the review, so I'll save my thoughts on the game itself until then.
I wanted to address a more immediate issue that's affected countless gamers all over the world, namely the atrociously planned release of the PC version of the game. Normally, the PC version of the game is the way to go. Assuming you have a reasonably current system, the graphics will look better, the game will probably control more fluidly, and you'll have access to user mods that can extend any game's life significantly. However, in the case of BioShock, I'm tempted to say that if you have the choice, you should either wait a month or two to buy the game, or buy the XBox 360 version.
The PC version stumbled out of the gate with a host of problems. First were the litany of activation headaches related to SecuROM's activation. Many gamers were unable to activate the game, and the SecuROM protection had a limit on the number of time the game could be re-installed. Gamers who downloaded the game from Steam were also greeted with activation headaches. Personally, I purchased the game from Direct2Drive (which I prefer over Steam because you actually get the game files, just like a retail copy, which is useful for tweaking and mods) and didn't have any troubles with the activation. But my headaches were yet to come.
The PC version of BioShock is buggy. And I don't mean a few minor bugs here and there. I mean this game crashes more than a blind ballerina. Just tonight, in only a few hours' play, I was treated to three hard freezes (requiring a system restart) and two crashes to desktop. I find myself unable to get truly immersed in the game because the crashes are so frequent. I have to quicksave every couple of minutes just for peace of mind, which, since the quicksaves bring up a save screen, really hurts my sense of immersion in the game.
One thing I really pride myself on is that I run a stable rig. But I'm only human, so I checked online to see if anyone else was having issues with freezes and crashes. Turns out the developers' boards were ablaze with angry gamers demanding a prompt patch to fix widespread stability problems.
But there's another issue that irks me just a bit, which is the fact that despite what appears to be a widespread issue, the game got high-flying scores across the board. Now, I am certainly enjoying the game, despite having to restart my computer every now and then. But countless games have been penalized for the most minor bugs, and now BioShock, released with months of fever-pitch hype, gets a free pass. Now, it's possible that not everyone reviewing the game is having issues. But it seems like most of the reviews came from the 360 version, with just an aside talking about the changes to the interface to suit the PC.
I'm sure these issues will ultimately be resolved, but it's a slap in the face to PC gamers – especially fans of System Shock who really looked forward to this game – to release the game with some major stability problems. I can overlook the occassional AI glitch or scripting bug, but when a game crashes randomly and repeatedly (I was, on some occasions, able to duplicate the crashes), it's pretty tough to enjoy it. And it's especially irresponsible on the part of critics to get sucked in by the hype and overlook these issues.
I'm really looking forward to the BioShock movie for a number of different reasons. First off, I love the game to death–it's creepy, it's got an engaging story, and it was a blast to play. Second, I'd really like to see a movie based on a videogame that turns out to be good. I think this is the property that could give game movies the same sort of legitimacy that comic films now enjoy. Finally, I got the impression that maybe Universal understood the potential of what they had and were going to pull out all the stops to make a great movie. They hired an interesting director, Gore Verbinski, and they appeared ready to spare no expense in bringing his vision to the screen. Appeared is now the key word in that last sentence.
Variety now brings us news that Universal is backing off on the BioShock movie.
"Universal Pictures has put the brakes on "Bioshock," the Gore Verbinski-directed live action adaptation of the bestselling Take-Two Interactive vidgame. The picture was in pre-production, but the studio has halted that effort–and let some production staff go–as Universal and Verbinski figure out a way to make the film at a more reasonable budget.
Sources said that the John Logan-scripted picture was gearing up to shoot in Los Angeles, but that changed when the budget rose to the vicinity of $160 million. U and Verbinski are looking at alternatives like shooting in London as a way to pare costs. The plotline takes place in the underwater city Rapture, where a pilot crash-lands near a secret entrance and becomes involved in a power struggle.
Studio sources said that the budget simply became untenable, but U sources said this is no different than when the studio delayed the start of the untitled Robin Hood pic that Ridley Scott is now directing with Russell Crowe starring. U is making that picture for $130 million, a much lower budget that in its first incarnation. For a number of reasons that included the need for extra script work, that picture temporarily halted, a move which enabled Crowe to star in "State of Play" when Brad Pitt fell out.
All parties vow that "Bioshock" will not become another "Halo," the live action adaptation of the Microsoft game that was going to be turned into a film by U and Fox until both studios got cold feet and cancelled the deal over budget fears."
That's a real bummer. The only silver lining in this cloud is this:
Verbinski and sources at the studio say they are determined to make the pic.
They'd better be–particularly since Verbinksi is passing on a guaranteed mega-payday by turning down Pirates of the Caribbean in order to do this film instead.Find more on The Horror Geek blog.
I think we were all pretty excited by the idea of Gore Verbinski directing the cinematic adaptation of 2K Games' BioShock. Unfortunately, though, the global economy and other issues killed that dream and cast the future of the project into doubt—at least it did until last night.
Variety is reporting that director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo is currently in negotiations to take over the project.
While Fresnadillo isn't a household name, he did direct 28 Weeks Later—which was nice piece of apocalyptic zombie cinema. The style he displayed behind the camera in that film certainly gives me hope for BioShock.
This isn't official yet, but I'll keep you posted as details emerge.
Find more on The Horror Geek blog.
So via Critical Distance I found this feminist critique of BioShock, written by Richard Terrell (who, you may have noticed, is a man). But it is really not sitting right with me. His thesis is that BioShock depicts women as weak and men as strong. So I thought the rest of the article would try to show how BioShock upholds patriarchal values.
And it does, at first, but I don't really agree with the analysis. He starts off talking about the Little Sisters. Obviously, everyone else has pointed out the sexist dichotomy of the Big Daddies and Little Sisters. But he states that when you play either good or evil, Little Sisters are commodified. I disagree with that, based on my friend's analysis that I wrote about over here: the entire point of the good path is to show that the Little Sisters are PEOPLE, not commodities; as Mighty Ponygirl states, you have to reject Randian philosophy and accept that they aren't resources for the taking in order to save them. And if you don't, and you harvest them, you get the bad ending—you're evil.
I'm also not totally sure I buy the argument about taking away the girls' agency when you save them, since you are ignoring their resistance. These are very young girls we are talking about, not adult women, though I suppose your mileage may vary on this point.
The criticism of Tenenbaum is where the feminist analysis is really weak. Terrell describes how Tenenbaum is initially shown as logical, protective, and strong, saying that she is "a woman whose life style flies in the face of the patriarchal woman," but then she "begins to artificially morph falling into the patriarchal gender role of women." While I agree that Tenenbaum not shooting the player when zie harvests the first Little Sister (if that path is chosen, mind) when she had just shot a splicer for even trying to do the same is a bit of a plot-hole (though she could have known that the player was much more powerful than any splicer and could have feared getting killed, leaving the Little Sisters with no protection whatsoever), I don't think that Tenenbaum morphs into a patriarchal woman. She doesn't change, we just find out more about her, and as it turns out, she is rather complex (the post doesn't touch on her background in a German World War II concentration camp). Just because we find out that she cares about the little girls doesn't make her NOT a brilliant geneticist, and a Holocaust survivor, and everything else she is.
Terrell's analysis is based on the idea that "logical = male = good / emotional = female = bad," an association that is used and repeated by the author with no critical examination when he says that Tenenbaum defies patriarchy at first by being logical but succumbs to it by being emotional. I mean, should Tenenbaum have not been emotionally invested in the Little Sisters? I think that would have been entirely unrealistic, and even bizarre since in order to follow the good path, you must care (to some degree) about them yourself. In addition, an important concept of feminism is that logic and emotion are not exact opposites (example: it is logical for one to feel sad after one's dog dies), the two qualities aren't inherent to one gender or another, and they are both essential for all human beings. A feminist critique should take into account the fact that it is natural and human to be able to both reason and feel emotion, often at once.
Further, the author notes that Fontaine puts down Tenenbaum by calling her a "Mother Goose." The author seems to forget that Fontaine is the villain of the game, so the player isn't necessarily supposed to agree with him. I didn't quite get his point here, but the Critical Distance post sums it up as "Dr. Tenenbaum's redemption comes through an acquiescence to patriarchal ideas of motherhood." But I don't see what is specifically patriarchal about Tenenbaum's maternal instincts. She has them, and that is enough to make her a tool of the patriarchy? (Should Tenenbaum, and women in general, not have maternal instincts in order to be feminist?) I would contend that Tenenbaum is actually a feminist mother in that she is a genius with a career and a single mother figure! She is the head of her little non-traditional family, after all.
Tenenbaum is not an unproblematic character from a feminist perspective, but she is a lot more complex than the author of this post gives her credit for. The post also doesn't mention the botanist, who is a woman and another genius; this gives the game at least two female geniuses, when most forms of entertainment rarely give us any.
I also take issue with this statement: "Throughout the rest of the game Tenenbaum guides the player through various tasks and objectives. She tells the player what to do, and the player does it. Simply by playing through the game, the player fulfils [sic] the typical patriarchal male role of a strong, proactive, decisive force." How is the player proactive and decisive? I believe the player is actually reactive and obedient. The fiction supports me on this one: the entire point of the twist with Atlas, the line "A man chooses, a slave obeys," is that the player has been doing what zie is told the entire time, without any true free will; zie is not a Randian genius but a cog in the machine. This is pretty much the entire point of the game and is, as others have written, a critique on the limitations of video games.
As my friend pointed out to me, the game takes this critique even further by showing how the Little Sisters are conditioned to feel safe around and attached to the Big Daddies and negative toward women (Tenenbaum in particular). This social conditioning is something everyone goes through, and it affects (and to an extent controls) peoples' thoughts an actions in a deep and subtle way. In feminist theory, patriarchy is a form of social conditioning that teaches people that there are certain traits that are inherent to men and women, that men are strong and logical and intelligent and women are weak and emotional, and so on and so on. In this sense, the game is actually agreeing with and explaining feminist theory.
The post goes on to describe the misogyny present in the game: the cartoons that cheerfully show violence against women, Dr Steinem and certain characters' obsession with beauty. After several paragraphs describing these things in a negative tone, the post ends with: "[Rapture is] a place where women are forced to play in a man's world according to his rules, and there's nothing the player can do about it. And what's worst of all, Rapture is a place that is like our own in many ways."
… Right. At first I thought the author was criticizing the inclusion of the cartoons, the character of Diane McClintock, etc., but at the end he seems to understand that these things were included as criticism of the time period the game takes place in as well as the modern world. But doesn't that undermine his thesis that the game isn't feminist?
Even though the game may seem very problematic on the surface, overall I found it to have some deep feminist thought and themes behind it. It seems like Terrell couldn't decide either way.
I would really like to hear from you guys about this one. Am I missing anything? I think part of the problem here is that Terrell looks at the game purely through a cursory understanding of feminist theory and I am coming at it as a practical feminist. (Another problem is that I use way too many parentheticals.) But a lot of you are probably more well-read about BioShock than I am, and I would like to hear more from that perspective.
Read more on the While !Finished blog.