Written by  :  St. Martyne (3655)
Written on  :  Oct 31, 2007
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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Who is John Galt? -- A question without an answer.

The Good

Do you like the term - intellectual shooter? I don't, since it’s used mostly to identify oneself as an intellectual gamer instead of celebrating the game itself. However, I think it’s impossible to find any other two words describing BioShock so fully and extensively. I mean it in the most neutral sense of the phrase, because it is a well-known fact that you can’t take good without the bad. And it can’t be more so as in case of BioShock.

Irrational Games’ lastborn child, a successor to the critically acclaimed, yet ultimately unknown System Shock series, BioShock has brought the company just two things they were short of – wealth and fame. Now if there was just a single developer company that didn’t get enough of that, I would have bet on Irrational anytime of day. During its eight years course it hasn’t released a single average game. Let me remind you of the the unique concept of Freedom Force, flawless game mechanics and stunning level design of SWAT4, brilliant storytelling and engaging multiplayer of Tribes: Vengeance. All of those games (including, of course, System Shock 2 – the masterpiece of sci-fi horror) clearly showed that Irrational Games is an extraordinary team worthy of any amount of hype, overreaction and 10/10 reviews making the unsuspecting X360 owners rush into the street in order to buy a title from one of the most prominent developer of the recent decade.

However that should not cloud one’s judgment in light of the most obvious of BioShock faults, which we’re going to look over shortly.

Now to the premise. BioShock casts you in the role of a simple man living a simple life, who accidentally discovers a huge underwater city which the brightest minds of the post-war (WWII) world have made their home. Rapture. The world of unlimited possibilities for anyone who is willing to work and create. It opens its gates for anyone except for a single man - a parasite, a man who’s unable to do anything with his life, carrying his pathetic existence through the false notions of compassion, mercy and morality. Those who live in Rapture reject these people and all the governments supporting them, which is pretty much the whole "civilized" world. “It was not impossible to build Rapture at the bottom of the ocean, it was impossible to build it anywhere else”, says Andrew Ryan, the architect and the mastermind behind the city.

But you arrive too late to ripe the fruits of one man’s vision. As with all the ideas and utopias there is always one thing people forget to account for – it’s the faulty nature of the man himself. In case of Rapture, greed and lust for power turned out to be the harbingers of city’s downfall. You can’t build a society based on rationale and objectivism, because (watch out! Another Star Trek quote is coming!) human-beings are extremely irrational creatures and logic is just the beginning of wisdom. Despite seeming overwhelmingly complex the main idea of the game’s story is actually very simple and profound. It’s about how faulty the man is. No matter how much we strive into the sky towards perfection we should not forget about the chains on our legs, chains of human nature. The only thing that can beat the story of this game is the presentation of it..

The postfactum nature of BioShock’s storytelling provides the most impressive strength of the game. You’re not experiencing the story through the series of cut scenes or dialogs. Actually there’s no even a story to experience. Of course there is a series of events taking place inside the gameworld with varying objections and motivations but it is secondary to the history of the place. It’s not that important who you are and what you’re doing, what is important are the characters of Rapture and the details of their sad demise. The game achieves that sort of unusual narrative through the series of audio logs scattered throughout the gameworld combined with the detailed vision of what a certain environment has become. Irrational doesn’t connect the dots for you as it is done in many games via cutscenes or long dialogs. It offers you point A and point B and let your imagination do the rest, with results being much more striking and impressive.

That level of immersion is possible only in a video game, which in its own turn creates a much needed excuse for ideas of BioShock to take form of a video game. It creates an illusion of time overlapping – you hear the choices people made, the feelings they’ve experienced and at the same time you see the consequences of those choices and feelings right before your eyes. An amazing example of the interactive storytelling!

Ron Gilbert, the creator of Monkey Island series has once said that a game is a shitty place to tell a story. Yes, Mr. Gilbert it is, but instead of trying to tell it with the common devices used in movies and books, (yes, Square, you too) BioShock chooses another method unimaginable in the limits of those two media.

Certainly, a knowing man would notice that all of that (retrospective narrative, audio logs, post-factum presentation) was already presented by both System Shocks, Doom 3 and lots of other games which thought this to be a neat way to cut expenses on cutscenes, motion-cap and character modeling. But very few of them offered such an amazing treatment of this technique as BioShock did and neither has put it to so much use. The counterarguments to the tenets of objectivism, coined by Ayn Rand, are perfect fit for the BioShock’s way of narrating, with the characters speaking not of the current events or explaining a lot unnecessary info but expressing their thoughts and views in words instead. This in its own turn creates one of the most fleshed out set of videogame characters of recent years.

The best one being nobody else but the creator of Rapture himself – Andrew Ryan. Much as his prototype – Ayn Rand – Andrew has emigrated from the Soviet Union when he had found himself unable to cope with all the changes happening to his country. Yet he didn’t find any rest in USA either. Everywhere he was despised for his talent, money and radical views. He didn’t want the parasites, people without ambition or talent, to impose their will upon him. Much in fashion of Dostoevsky’s characters Ryan saw himself as an extraordinary being far above the issues of morality and decency. But unlike Raskolnikov, Ryan doesn’t doubt his beliefs and is not tormented by them. He is the man of great faith and strong convictions. He firmly believes in everything he does and doesn't care what others think of it. So even in time of his death he remains as strong in his faith as he ever was.

To be frank, the scene of Andrew Ryan's death requires some more space of this review. This is undoubtedly the piece of drama that will stay in your mind forever. Without spoilering much I can only say, that during witnessing it, I haven't thought for a second about how great/talented/skilled the guys at Irrational are. All of my thoughts were with that man before me, who even in his death doesn't lose a single inch of his faith and views. Very strong and convincing scene, indeed. It would make every movie director jealous.

In the spotlight is also a well-known duo. Big Daddy and Little Sister are perfect metaphor to unconditional love that requires no objective or rational explanation. You will love those interplays, they bring warmth and create a very important contrast to the cold and menacing environments of the city. Of course it’s a cheap argument to put a cute little girl on one plate of the scales and Ayn Rand with her philosophy on the other. The contrast works well, however.Partly, because it is a contrast which you, the player, must inevitably break, not by your choice, but by the necessity.

Other characters do not disappoint either. Each of them is a representation of a specific part of the new, corrupted Rapture. Art, Science and Industry. Fueled by plasmids (which are essentially a plot device and a key gameplay feature) they strive for perfection in those areas. A mad plastic surgeon with his mind completely whacked, an artist finishing his last masterpiece of dead bodies and a smuggler with non-existent values. Each character has lots of background to him depending on how thorough you are in examining your environments, finding clues and actually thinking. Because, as I mentioned earlier, Irrational doesn't care if you're following a story or not. This is excellent, since it always keeps you on your toes and your mind is always working, trying to figure out the real motivations of the characters. No wonder there are so many plot-analysis written after the game's release.

Visually, Bioshock is nothing but stunning. The game's visuals are a beautiful example as to what exactly constitutes great graphics in a game. Obviously, not technical superiority or the hardware the game is capable of taking advantage of. The true brilliance of graphics lies on sole shoulders of an artist. Artistically, BioShock is a very ambitious project. It has been compared to Fallout on numerous occasions with similarities in its 30's ads stylistic approach. Some people attached "art-deco" label shortly after. But the truth is that BioShock is something you haven't ever seen before. It seamlessly combines incombinable. The screaming ads of smiling people reminiscent of mid-20th century America is merged with technological wonders which feels more at home in Wells and Verne novels, than in the works of Asimov and Clarke, and all that is spiced up with the extreme attention to details. Texturing, modeling, special effects - everything in here is working in a single unit to bring the atmosphere of the decayed city of wonders as to close to reality as possible. I've already known that level designers of Irrational are miracle workers with their amazing job on SWAT4 realistic levels, but this time, when they were not constrained by limitations of our real world, they outdid themselves. Sometimes, I even felt like crying staring looking over beautiful locations, so different and yet following the same stylistic guidelines.

That does sound like a perfect game, doesn't it? Well, I don't want to break it for you, but it isn't. The irony is that if BioShock didn't have all those extraordinary things I've mentioned up to this point I might have had no problem with it whatsoever. But the game's unique and unusual subject, superior artistic design and overall professional quality brings me to blaming BioShock for a thing I wouldn't consider to blame any other game for. Namely, it's genre choice.

The Bad

Why on Earth this game decided to be a First Person Shooter?

As I said I had no problems with any game's choice of genre up to this point. You see in games like No One Lives Forever, System Shock I & II, Outlaws, Dark Forces, Strife, Half-Life - all the additional features (non-shooting) are used to enhance them. Thus, it results in a perfect blend. We take a shooter canvas and put some nice touches on it that elevates it above it's contemporaries. It worked on numerous times, and should have worked with BioShock as well.

Especially, if we take into consideration, that the "shooter canvas" of it is much more superior to any other FPS. You have lots of abilities to choose from, different plasmids in various combinations can easily provide a lot of unexpected results. It's fun to experiment with those techniques, trying to find an instant-kill solution. Which, of course, is impossible to find, prompting you to keep chaging your approach in every situation. I didn't miss any of the System Shock exclusive features, like inventory, research or character stats, and was completely satisfied with the way revival chamber were realized in BioShock. So, what's wrong? We have an excellent story/subject and great gameplay which easily result in a game like one has never seen before, don’t we?

The problem is that those do not go together at all. I think the reason of that lies in BioShock's subject which requires everything to work for it. It wasn't a problem in NOLF - where subject required you to be a spy, you did what spies usually do (at least in 60's movies), in Outlaws - subject required you to take revenge on your dead wife and daughter. And what does BioShock subject (counterarguments to objectivism) requires you to do? Nice question.

Kill hordes of zombie-like Splicers is the answer. Now tell me, how does that reinforce the game's point? What is the reason to all the time I spent in-between admiring locations and listening to the logs? There's none. BioShock with its serious subject would have looked much better in the canvas of adventure or an RPG (as showed by Bioware/Black Isle) or maybe tried to get there by some other means. The core of the BioShock's gameplay should have been "a choice" instead of "a shooting". The choice players face in the current game is laughable, because it doesn't provide any effect on the story, (it shows another cut-scene in the end, true, but how does it help to change the message of the game?) and benefits from saving the girls are obvious from the start.

Once again, I will say that have the subject of the game been simpler and less dominant; it wouldn't have made the action seem much more appropriate. But as it is, each part of the game must work towards a single goal -- conveying an idea. Obviously, "shooting zombies", which is somewhere around 70% of the game doesn't help that cause much.

I completely understand the reasons behind BioShock's choice of genre. First, people were expecting a successor to System Shock, secondly, one cannot expect BioShock the Adventure to break as many sells as BioShock the FPS did. Which is a shame, since in the end, it did outgrow both System Shocks, and perhaps became the best top-sold game of the last decade. It certainly deserved upon much better treatment.

The Bottom Line

This is my first review that features a newly created rating system. It came up as I wasn't satisfied with the criteria usually used for game ratings. I called it TAPEA, with each letter standing for a certain aspect of Developer Company as reflected by the game.

Talent: 5/5

One should not doubt the talent of Irrational. Once again they proved that they were touched by God himself. I can't imagine an untalented person coming up with those outstanding locations and brilliant ideas. Rapture, Big Daddies, Art-Deco, Plasmids, Little Sisters, Underwater setting – they're constantly feeding you high-class ideas, which could’ve only born in the minds of extremely talented individuals.

Ambition: 4/5

In BioShock the developer offered something rarely seen in a video game. A mature subject venturing beyond love/hatred/revenge clichés. Unfortunately they didn't dare to carry this ambition through. I mean creating a gameplay that would have been on par with the game's subject, hence a drop in one point.

Pteity (Pushing The Envelope - ity): 3/5

BioShock does go when nobody has gone before. It changes your mind on the subject of how games can communicate stories and ideas. Unfortunately, all of those elements have been already seen in other games, even if executed on a much lower scale and with much lesser effect. The story repeats itself in game play department as well - it does provide some unique ideas, but nothing warranting a legion of clones.

Effort: 5/5

The colossal attention to detail and the game's impressive length (around 12 hours) show many sleepless nights and cups of coffee drunk in the Irrational Games headquarters.

Adequacy: 5/5

The overall coherency of different departments is the evidence of how much the developer cared about how things are fitting together, the style and theme are always maintained regardless of the situation. I won't drop any point here since even the game's questionable FPS attitude towards gameplay is reasonably justified within the limits of the gameworld. Completely adequate and nothing feels out of place.

In the end we receive 4.4/5 which is an average score of those five equally important criteria.

As for the closing part I'll just repeat the one-liner "Who is John Galt?" It's a quote from "Atlas Shrugged", book by Ayn Rand, which BioShock names as its primary source of inspiration. It's a synonym to hopelessness and inability to change anything. The same feelings I am left with after completing BioShock. I understand that you can't have best of both worlds at the same time. You can't be commercially successful and yet break new grounds, at least not on a scale, shareholders' meeting would appreciate.

Perhaps, you need people like Andrew Ryan or Dagny Taggart (a character from the book) to do it, people not constrained by the concerns of others or by the questions of appropriateness and decency. Men who uses only common sense and objective truth as their Bible. And, you know, I am sure that the phrase "BioShock could have been so much more" would have been written somewhere in that book.

Maybe Ayn Rand was actually right?

Nah. :)