Game Review: Bioshock

Biologically shocking.

Developer: 2K Boston, 2K Australia
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (reviewed)
Available on: Steam

This was one of the last games I bought on physical media years ago. But I’ve never finished it until now. The reason for that was that back then, I didn’t have a gaming computer, only a laptop. And the weirdest thing happened when I first played the game on that laptop.

I played through the first couple of minutes until you arrive in Rapture and get out of the Bathysphere to first explore the city. And then my screen went dark. Completely black. I thought this was part of the game, so I left it running for a few minutes until I realized that this couldn’t possibly be on purpose. So I tried to quit the game and even after that the screen stayed black. Booting up the laptop showed an image only for a few minutes and after that, same thing. The fucking backlighting of the monitor broke right in the middle of me playing a horror game. So I sent off the laptop for repairs (it was still under warranty) and after I got it back, I never tried to play the game again. Not out of some kind of superstition that the game would break my PC or something, I just never cared enough. Until now that they’ve released a remastered version. And since I got the Bioshock collection a few years back during a Steam sale, the remaster came free of charge for people who already owned the Steam version. Which is a really nice gesture. Ironically if I now read the Steam user reviews for the game, I see that tons of people are having issues with this remaster crashing on them and deleting saves. Weirdly, I haven’t had a single issue with it. The ragdoll physics sometimes act up a bit, but overall this was a really smooth ride for me in terms of technical aspects.

So what do I think of this now 10 year old game? I thought it was pretty ok overall. Not some sort of masterpiece by any stretch, but I mostly enjoyed my experience with this game. The plasmid powers are fun to use in a variety of ways that encourage creative gameplay and they tie in nicely into the lore and story of the game as well, so as such I feel that they’re a well thought out aspect of the game. More mechanics should be integrated this well into a game on a mechanical and narrative level. Unfortunately, there are some clearly better plasmids than others. The first two you get, electro bolt and telekinesis, are literally the most important ones to your progress. And after I got the third one, the fire bolt, I foolishly swapped that one with electro bolt and since you can’t swap out plasmids on the fly I got stuck using that one and realized my big mistake. And since I relied so much on these few plasmids as well as saving all the little sisters resulting in less ADAM overall, I honestly never got to play with most of the plasmids (and combat and engineering tonics as well) that seemed way to situational to be useful to use on the fly when encountering enemies.

The same thing is true for the weapons along with their multiple ammo types. I just used the pistol and machine gun for the biggest part of the game, rounding up the rest of the time with the shotgun. I only used the chemical thrower during the final escort mission and the grenade launcher for a few big daddies. The shooting overall leaves a bit to be desired. I don’t quite know how to describe it but it’s a kind of “Tighten up the graphics on level 3” kind of affair. It’s just a combination of sounds and general impact of the weapons that leaves me kinda cold.

One of the most annoying parts of the game though is the hacking minigame. I get that you want to be able to convert enemy turrets, hack security cameras and crack safes and locked doors, that’s all cool. But the Pipe Dream minigame got on my nerves. Especially since at times it’s literally impossible to complete one due to placement of broken tubes or alert tiles. And there’s no way of using your insta-hack tool after you’ve already chosen to do it manually. And since I chose to not harvest the little sisters, I haven’t gotten enough ADAM to unlock that many tonic slots to make hacking more bearable in the long run. Not that it would’ve helped because seriously, this minigame is just awful.

What’s weird is also that the game clearly had ambitions of being a role-playing game but these aspirations are severely underdeveloped. You can buy health upgrades and incremental improvements in firearm damage and capacity as well as upgrades for plasmids, but it all just feels perfunctory. There’s no inventory management and for some reason I never figured out if you can sort your weapons, because I hated how the game automatically relocates your weapons at points in the game where you lose them. Picking up craftable items is an entirely abstract process. I don’t know how many tubes or screws I had and I don’t know what I can craft with them until I arrive at a U-Invent station. Finding food means that Jack eats it right then and there on the spot, so the only way of saving up impromptu health regeneration is via medkits.

Not that it’s hard to find those. The game is littered with money, ammo and medkits and I rarely died so even without the really dense placement of the vita chambers I was almost never in trouble when I got into a fight. Overall the game is a bit on the easy side with you being able to tank quite a lot of damage while dealing out tons of it, so the whole horror aspect falls kinda flat because not a lot poses any challenge to you. Even the big daddies are fairly easy to get around and the final boss fight was hilariously easy.

The game also feels a bit overlong. And that’s saying something, because I beat it less than 10 hours. It kinda feels like the game really wanted to be a primarily narrative experience that critiques objectivist philosophy (which it does quite nicely, even though I personally think that objectivism has more merit than it’s given credit for here) but they ran out of steam at some point and had to pad out the game. The part leading up to Andrew Ryan was a great crescendo, but everything after that just feels like a tacked-on denouement. Because the story ends with the interaction between the player and Ryan. The twist is revealed and the message to the player is delivered. Everything after that is just done for the sake of concluding the story and it drags out way too long.

It’s not like this is some sort of open-world exploration game. Bioshock is aggressively linear. And I really don’t mind that in a game, but the amount of backtracking it makes you do to gather plot-necessary items is just boring. It’s the most basic way of designing quests and this is what you’re doing most of the time. Need to build an EMP bomb? Gather these couple of materials. Need to pose as a big daddy? Gather the items on this list. Need to just simply progress? Find and kill these three individuals and take pictures of their corpses.

Speaking of taking pictures: Researching enemies is boring too. I did it for the one time the game required me to do it (in another “Need to progress? Photograph three splicers” quest) and then never bothered with it again. The benefits aren’t worth sneaking around and trying to take good pictures when I could just as easily perforate their brainpan with hot lead.

So yeah, I’m as usual highly critical of a game, but I still enjoyed the majority of the experience. But I’d never consider this one of the greatest games of all time. It has a huge narrative ambition that most other games would never even attempt, but the gameplay is just kinda there for the most part. Which is a shame.

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