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SummaryWould you kindly stop patronizing me?
The GoodBioShock polarized opinions shortly after its release, mainly because it had claimed to be something it really wasn't: a true spiritual successor to System Shock games. The game was seen by some old-timers as a herald of simplified gameplay for the masses, an unworthy stepchild conquering innocent hearts with shallow splendor. I must state that I share that sentiment; but first, as always, the good part.
BioShock is one of the most stylistically impressive games I've come across. Call it Art Deco or whatever, but in fact it is a unique "Rapturian" style. Most of the things you see in BioShock can only be seen in this game. Everything - every character, building, piece of furniture, photographs, clothes, machinery, random objects - is homogeneous, everything is designed in such a way that it suits the lush, decadent theme of the game. Rapture is instantly recognizable. Take a look at any BioShock screenshot and you'll know immediately it is from BioShock. There aren't that many games that can boast such an achievement. The game simply screams style, and from the first screen to the last you are invited to an unforgettable art gallery.
Then there are sound effects and music, truly an experience of its own. The insane babbling of the splicers, the eerie recorded voices of dead people on audio diaries, the distorted screams coming from unexpected places, the creepy child voices of little sisters, the menacing, blood-chilling humming of their protectors come on top of old music - forgotten and desolate, like Rapture itself. Very old swing tunes, the kind of jazz that feels like it should be stored in a museum - comfortable and strangely sad, vulnerable music, which turns so scary when you realize to what it serves as background. You listen to this game as much as you look at it. And if you do both, you are immersed into a strange, beautiful, disturbing world, with a magical atmosphere that draws you in with unseen force.
The contrast between the cozy "retro" world depicted in the game and the terrifying, desolate reality can be quite scary. There is something very majestic - and oddly touching - in the ruined city you'll explore. You can fall in love with Rapture. It is beautiful, yet it is also horrifying. All this marvelous work, all those visions, the ideals, the energy, the genius of its creators - everything was destroyed. Using an excellent gameplay device that did survive from System Shock, the scattered audio diaries tell you about a world and people that don't exist any more. You travel through places that were once full of life and have fell victims to destruction and decay.
The much-advertised Big Daddies and Little Sisters may not represent the epitome of choice-based gameplay, but they do add an interesting twist to the routines of the genre. Basically, we are talking about a substantial amount of tough optional bosses with a bit of a schematic "good and evil" decision pattern through in. Like everything else in the game, those characters are nicely tied into the story, and your treatment of them will eventually affect the ending.
As mentioned above, recreating the story of the past using gameplay-related means is an essential feature that was faithfully carried over from System Shock games. If you've played those you know what I'm talking about: instead of developing from cutscene to cutscene, the story is hidden in the notes left by different characters, and it's up to you to unravel it. This is retroactive storytelling, and it works great. The story itself is pretty good, though its formal structure and even a major plot twist were basically ripped out of the second System Shock 2.
The BadI won't go into promotional issues here, but even without all the hype similarities with System Shock games can be felt just from playing BioShock. Sadly, many of those similarities are superficial: the developers of BioShock apparently failed to understand what made its older brothers work in such splendid ways.
System Shock games were wonderfully open-ended. The space station in the first game and the abandoned ship in the second were large, generous locations you could explore at your own pace. Not so in BioShock: granted, the levels are reasonably spacious and there is optional stuff to find almost everywhere - but they are still levels. Free-form exploration was one of the chief reasons for System Shock games feeling like RPGs. BioShock doesn't feel that way at all: it's just a fairly linear shooter with some fancy magic spells.
And even as such, it's not that good. I always had a feeling that the designers wanted to make something more out of it - a deeper, more tactical game with more choices during combat. The fact is that you do have choices - but they don't mesh well with the game's mandatory fast pace and linearity. Since you cannot circumvent your enemies, the preferred alternative would be then blasting them to pieces in a fast and furious way. Instead, you'll have to micro-manage your plasmids and fiddle with your abilities just to get rid of yet another brainless splicer.
You are therefore overwhelmed by your possibilities, and that makes the game too slow, and hence overly repetitive. You'll be doing a lots of things at the same time - fighting enemies, hunting for items, buying things, etc., and most of those activities won't be new and fresh anymore. Also, those activities feel artificial and disjointed: the game conveniently pauses for you when you attempt to hack a turret - and when it's done, you are confronted once again by a flurry of chaotic enemies seemingly taken out of an arcade game. By the way, hacking is handled like a minigame, which is a poor choice per se, especially when it's easy and monotonous.
There is surprisingly little variety in enemies. It's basically the same splicers from the beginning to the end. Sure, there are several variants of them who behave quite differently, but in the end they are the same mutant humans over and over again. During later levels, the enemies become more powerful, but they still look the same and even have the same names. They just gain more health and take way too long to kill. This doesn't really contribute to the difficulty - it just increases the tedium, which is so out of place in an action game.
Resource management is a valuable game mechanic that modern games like dumbing down so much. Collecting only makes sense when the collected item is scarce and when it takes a while to complete the collection. In BioShock, you have no problem packing machine guns and grenade launchers, but you can only carry nine healing items and five hundred dollars. Ammo is too plentiful and dollars are scattered around when there is nothing I want to buy.
The ubiquitous vita chambers are, in all seriousness, a game-breaking flaw. In this game, you are essentially immortal. When you die, you always respawn with half your health intact, while your enemies are politely waiting for you to come over and finish them off. This kills any remnants of challenge and suspense the game might have still had. I clearly remember a Big Daddy fight where I literally emptied a gun into him, got killed, emptied another gun, and so on, until I emerged victorious. There was zero skill involved; I felt the designers were simply patronizing me. I cannot fathom how the designers could let such a fatal defect slip into the final version of the product.