Thursday, September 13, 2007

BioShock Review

BioShock, developed by Irrational Games and published by 2K Games.
The Good: Extremely varied and customizable weaponry, fantastic setting, outstanding graphics and sound, not terribly difficult with no penalty for dying and frequent respawn points
The Not So Good: No multiplayer, ridiculous and redundant copy protection
What say you? A tremendously well-developed shooter: 7/8

Note: This is a spoiler-filled review. Kevin Spacey is Keyser Söze

As a smallish review site, I normally get to pick and choose which games I annoy publishers about getting. This is why you’ll see an inordinate amount of strategy games (my favorite genre) reviewed here and hardly any role-playing games (meh). I’m not the biggest fan of single player first person shooters (I do, however, enjoy online shooters), so when you see one on the site, you know I think it’s potentially pretty good. That brings us to BioShock, developed by what used to be Irrational Games (now called 2K Has Deep Pockets), authors of several games I enjoy (SWAT 4, Tribes Vengeance). Will those countless e-mails sent to 2K’s press relations company be worth it?

BioShock uses the new-ish Unreal engine and the results are impressive. The game looks technically good, with all sorts of shiny surface, light tricks, and all of that stuff that most high-end games include these days. The water has gotten special attention in the game (since the game takes place under water) and it looks nice, although it’s not as overwhelmingly spectacular as others have stated. The special effects like fire work well, and the weapons come with high detail as well. The thing that really works for BioShock is the setting: the developers have created a semi-plausible environment with a consistent theme and finely detailed characters and buildings. It really puts you in the game and BioShock is very immersive (Mircosoft Word says that’s not a word, but I think it is). Any game can have bump-mapping and reflective surfaces, but it doesn’t mean much if the total package doesn’t come together in an impressive fashion, and it does in BioShock thanks to the unique scenery. A bonus is that the game performs smoothly, even with all of the snazzy features cranked up. Accompanying the quality graphics is equally fine sound. BioShock features great, heartfelt voice acting that almost makes you feel bad for killing little girls (almost). The music in the game works well, and the sound effects are also well done. Overall, BioShock looks and sound very impressive and the high production values produce a very believable environment in which to shoot things.

The first thing you’ll notice when you play BioShock is that you have to register your CD key online. I have no problem with that: most of the games I review are downloaded and registered online. However, you must also have the disk in the drive every time you play and you are limited in the number of reinstalls you can do (in case you get a new computer or need to reinstall Windows, although Windows is so stable why would you ever need to do that?). This is overkill to the extreme. If everyone has to authenticate their game with a key before they play, then why is the disk required to be in the drive? I thought the point of online authentication was to eliminate the need for a CD, not to exacerbate the copy protection problem. It’s enough to take the overall score down a point…so take that!

BioShock is a single-player only first person shooter where you explore the underwater world of Rapture and shoot stuff. There is no multiplayer, which would have been an interesting addition considering some of the exotic weapons and spells that are present in the game. The game takes place during the early 1960s, and BioShock takes place in a futuristic environment for the time period. The world of Rapture is very well designed and it’s a captivating place in which to destroy things. The story is fairly interesting and you can listen to optional audio tapes that shed some light on the strife present in Rapture. The weapons you are given are the standard fare: a wrench, pistol, machine gun, shotgun, crossbow, and grenade and chemical launchers. However, each weapon (with a couple of exceptions) can hold three different kinds of ammo: they can include armor piercing, explosive, electrical, napalm, or incendiary rounds. Each of these alternative ammunitions are appropriate for different enemies in different settings, which makes the strategic elements of the game much more interesting than generic weapons that are present in most shooters. Taking a cue from role-playing games, your character in BioShock can become equipped with a number of spells (the game calls them “plasmids”) that grant special powers as a secondary (or primary, depending on how powerful it is) weapon. You can freeze things, set fire to them, electrocute them, use a swarm of insects, command a tornado, hypnotize enemies, and move objects with your mind. These are much more interesting than the standard spells in most RPGs that simply cause damage. Together with the weapons, the plasmids open up a large variety of attacks and all of the weapons (even the lonely wrench) and plasmids have their use for the entire game. For example, electrocuting enemies and then knocking them out with the wrench remains a viable attack for the whole campaign. That’s something that can’t be said in most shooters, as the most powerful weapons you get near the end are the best. You are also limited to carrying two plasmids at once (you an unlock additional slots, though), so having a good combo is important.

Plasmids are powered using Eve, which is collected around the map or “borrowed” from fallen enemies. Ammunition and health are gathered in the same fashion. New plasmids, however, require gathering Adam, and this can only be taken from Little Sisters. Unfortunately for you, these defenseless Little Sisters are always accompanied by Big Daddies, large hulking robots with very powerful weapons that require extreme firepower (or good planning) to defeat. These Big Daddies are by far the most difficult part of the game (the normal enemies aren’t that challenging until late in the game). Thankfully, they won’t attack unless provoked, so you can lay mines and set up turrets before making your initial strike. Once you destroy a Big Daddy (which is kind of sad in a way, with the Little Sister weeping, “Bubbles! Noooo!”), you can choose to “free” the Little Sister for a small amount of Adam (but you feel better about yourself) or “harvest” the Little Sister for maximum Adam, killing her in the process. You are given rewards over time for the less violent approach. In addition to the plasmids, you can also gain tonics that provide permanent physical, weapon, or other upgrades (like faster hacking). With all of the weapons, ammo, plasmids, and tonics, you can really tailor your character to your play style in BioShock.

Other than the ammo, first aid kits, and Eve needles scattered around each level, there are a number of machines to serve your needs. Different machines allow you to reconfigure your plasmids and tonics, purchase new plasmids, purchase ammunition or kits with money “borrowed” from corpses, shut down security camera, increase your health, upgrade weapons, or even make new items. You can also get a camera for research purposes, which will improve your attacks against the enemy you researched. BioShock includes a hacking mini-game for gaining access to turrets and machines: you need to connect pipes. It’s a good challenge and a decent puzzle game on its own.

One of the reasons I dislike single-player shooters is that I get stuck. A lot. So I’m happy to report that I only got lost a couple of times in BioShock, as there are normally hints on what to do next and an arrow pointing the way to the objective. Another annoyance with single player games is death, which usually requires you to reload a saved game. In BioShock, there is no penalty for dying: you will just respawn at the last checkpoint (of which there are plenty) with all of your weapons and money intact. The enemies you were fighting will also keep their damage (otherwise defeating Big Daddies would be almost impossible in the early game). You can get stuck in a loop as you run out of ammo and money, but it’s still a better system than the alternative. The AI opponents are smart: they will run for water if they are on fire and use health stations if needed. While they won’t necessarily use cover, they do provide a good enough amount of challenge without being overly difficult, especially for veteran players. I had fun playing the game, with the occasional hiccup for getting stuck or having to respawn a lot for a Big Daddy battle. But overall, I had a grand time vacationing in Rapture.

If you like single player first person shooters, then BioShock is a good one to play. BioShock makes the shooter experience deeper than the typical game, due to the successful blend of varied weapons, ammunition, spells, and power-ups. The setting is very memorable and distinctive, unlike all of those World War II games. While experienced players might fund BioShock to be too easy, the difficulty level makes the game appeal to a much larger audience. The various strategies you can employ, coupled with the Big Daddy battles, elevate BioShock above the rest of the pack. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t come with multiplayer and the copy protection scheme is extremely annoying and restrictive. Still, most fans of first person shooters or simply games in general will find a unique and fun experience.