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Monday, January 12, 2009

Late to the Game: Bioshock: The First Impressions

I bought Bioshock on Steam for five dollars a week or two ago. I remember it won the GameSpot story of the year award, so I thought "Hey, five dollars. Can't pass that up." (Portal was $2.99. Jesum crow, now you have no excuse!) Unfortunately, my five dollars only went so far, as I found out my computer was too old for the game. So I had to buy a new video card to play the game decently, which cost me as much as if I'd bought the game new. Oh well, at least I'll be able to play new games as well (where's HL2: Episode 3? Come on, I wanna see how it ends!).

First off, I love the sets (if I can call them that). I've never seen such elaborate decoration. Half-Life had detail, but a lot of it was outside. Bioshock takes place in an underwater in the 1950's. That alone should be enough to suck anyone in, but these places have bathrooms, kitchens, shops, elevators, ashtrays, and searchable corpses. The enemy movements seem a little stilted - not as fluid as Half-Life, and I miss the ragdoll physics. But the world is rich and detailed. I wish I had the time to appreciate it fully, but the pressing nature of a family makes me feel like I have to finish the game as quick as possible to get back to my other stuff.

So far, the story-telling has its good and bad points. There's virtually no intro - you don't know who you are, besides a guy on a plane - but so far that seems largely irrelevant. It's the "Trapped in Another World" scenario with a nondescript hero - a standard VG trope.

My problem is, because the world is so rich, and because it's a video game, they move you along fast. You don't have time to appreciate the fantastic stuff before you get to even more fantastic stuff. For example, your plane crashes and you swim to a menacing black tower, then down a bathyscope to the underwater city of Rapture, where humpback whales swim under the sign for "Dr. Morley's Tobacco Emporium". The guy who comes to get you out gets attacked by a Splicer (the common enemy grunt), and you're on your own, except for a guy on a radio. He doesn't explain what's going on, he doesn't tell you what you're doing here, and he sure doesn't help you get around much. The guy lives in Rapture, you think he could give you some directions.

The "what's going on" is revealed from the advertising (great story-telling device) and narrative diaries (bad story-telling device). You have to basically wait and do nothing while you listen to the diary. This interrupts the experience. I guess the idea is that you keep playing while you listen, but its hard to hear when my shotgun's going off. Or concentrate when I see a Nitro Splicer coming at me. And those diaries don't pause.

Very shortly after the game begins, before you even pick up a hitscan weapon, you get your first psychic power. From a vending machine. And the first thing you do with it is inject it into your veins, without any provocation or instruction from your radio buddy. This causes your genetic code to be re-written and makes you black out and fall over a railing, leaving you cold on the ground while all manner of Splicers, Little Sisters, and Big Daddies come up to sniff your potential corpse.

Now, I'm operating on the assumption that this world is completely alien to the main character - there are no plasmids or ADAM on the surface, no one knows of Rapture, and Dr. Ryan (the head honcho) is dismissed as a reclusive Darwinian Mad Scientist. Granted, these are pretty large leaps of faith, but the introduction gives us no knowledge of the current environment, save the year. Therefore, I must assume that everything in the world is as it is in ours, with the exception of the game's macguffin.

So if the idea is that I'm playing as myself (almost, at least), the first thing I do with a foreign substance I got from a broken vending machine is not to stick it in my wrist. Especially if no one tells me to. In my humble experience, playing god in a mysterious underground city where the people who did the same thing are now attacking you is not the best survival strategy. I'll stick with my boomstick, thanks.

I'm not complaining about the plasmid game mechanic, mind you. I love setting things on fire. It's just the way that it's introduced to the player is implausible. And the fact that these things can be found in vending machines, dentist's offices, and tennis simulators is a stretch too. In my world, this would be a valuable substance, not something to be doled out willy-nilly. Imagine the chaos if everyone suddenly became telekinetic, pyrokinetic, super-strong, super-smart, and able to shoot lightning. And for clarification, the problems down below came from people messing with their genes in the first place, not the powers they gained. Most people are attacking me with grenades and shotguns, not ice blasts.

In fact, nearly everything you do is via vending machines. It incorporates some more interesting play mechanics (hacking, money management) that you don't typically see in shooters, but I find it more comically ludicrous than satircally plausible. Granted they sell iPods via machine, but not electric shotgun shells and genetic enhancements.

Finally, Little Sisters. Now, this is an interesting idea - it takes the concept of morality in video games to a new level. But what's their role in Rapture? In one of the diaries, Dr. Ryan says that the Little Sisters are necessary to their way of life. This means they're not a new thing. So what did they do before? Man the fry daddy at McPlasmid's? Right now they have a symbiotic relationship with the Big Daddies - harvesting ADAM in exchange for protection. Surely they weren't going around and doing this before. Not to mention that I find it hard to believe that ANY modern American society would allow experiments on little girls. They're described as having a "terminal illness" and "they're not little girls any more". Maybe the storytellers are being vague on purpose, to make them scarier, but I don't see how declaring their role would take away from the fear.

As you can see from this, and my review of Half-Life 2, I don't like being kept in the dark for the sake of gameplay or atmosphere. If the main character would know, then the player needs to know.

Nonetheless, I am enjoying myself in Rapture. I just think it's moving a little fast, and some of the environment wavers between ridiculous and unrealistic. I'll let you know how it turns out.
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