This “review” will be spoilerific. Thought I’d put that here because no matter how old something is, there’s always that one guy who throws a “DUDE, SPOILERS!” tantrum so don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Bioshock is one of those games that everyone who’s ever stood near an XBox at some point seems to know, love and idolise so given that I’m a cynical bastard by nature and tend to distrust the opinion of the majority after the Transformers movies, Mrs Browns Boys and Coldplay all became popular, I avoided Bioshock like a particularly rashy Asian hooker. But lo and behold, sometimes the unwashed sweary masses can be somewhat right, it’s actually pretty good!
You play as the faceless, voiceless and sexily named Jack in his journey through the underwater city of Rapture. We’re guided on our epic quest by Atlas, a man we should all know right from the start will turn out to be evil, just goes to show how much a cute little Irish accent will do to make you trust someone. I’m honestly not sure whether making it incredibly obvious that Atlas is the villain from the start is a comment on the blindly-following-orders nature of modern gamer or whether they didn’t hide it very well and just made a predictable game but still, you have to follow his orders to progress. One of the more impressive aspects of the game is the city itself. The sheer amount of detail that obviously went into accurately capturing a 50’s/60’s vibe, in architecture, decoration, in-game advertising and soundtrack, is laudable to say the least. It’s one of those cities that feels much larger than it actually is, proving that sheer solid game design will always trump the sandbox method of just copy and pasting miles and miles of anonymous cities and countryside.
I’ve heard that the gameplay is basically ripped wholesale from Fallout and System Shock games but I haven’t played or even seen very much of these games so I’ll be treating Bioshock as a separate entity. The basic combat is somewhat standard, you start with a useless melee weapon and gradually acquire the usual collection of handgun, shotgun, and machine gun and yeah yeah we’ve all been here before! Of course it’s technically sound but what isn’t, these days? A feature that does separate Bioshock from other generic shooters is the use of what are known as Plasmids. These are basically little balls of magic you can shoot out of your hands, for some reason, and give you the ability to do everything from shoot fire, lightning and bees at your enemies to hypnotising them or turning security cameras on them. Granted, they do lose their effectiveness as the game progresses and gunplay becomes more prominent but they’re still fun and somewhat useful. The game continues its pretensions to having RPG elements with the use of Tonics, power ups you collect through the game, and like many RPG power-ups they offer minimal noticeable aid, I played through the entire thing paying little to no attention to them and I did fine, maybe they’re more helpful on higher difficulties, who knows?
There are also 2 forms of currency, regular money, used to buy ammo and health items and such, and ADAM, a supposedly rare substance collected by murdering massive fuckers in sea suits knows as “Big Daddies” and killing/saving, depending on the ending you want, the adorable children they protect that’s used to purchase further upgrades and tonics. This is another aspect of the game that I didn’t bother with too much. The game bombards you with messages telling you how important ADAM is that you’ll basically die in shame without it but I did fine on the bare minimum. I suspect this has more to do with the game’s discussion of Capitalism than gameplay necessity, especially as the hassle of killing the Big Daddies vastly outweighs the positives that ADAM offers. Notice I used the word “hassle” there and not “challenge.” Nothing in this game is challenging due to the fact that life restoring “Vita Chambers” are placed every 5 feet and are completely free to use, reducing every encounter with a tough enemy to running into the room, firing a few shots, dying and repeating until it’s dead. Admittedly it takes a while to figure out and even to accept that this is the case but once you realise there’s very little reason to fear any of the enemies or to have any sense of caution at all, the game is pretty much broken and any sense of flow or tension goes right out of the window. Which sounds much worse than it is. It’s still fun, just not very hard. Also, the fact that your character is completely without a voice or an appearance or even a name that you don’t have to search the Internet for does wonders for immersion. The lack of speech, thought and reaction on the part of the protagonist has the Half-Life effect of allowing you to project your own personality into the role and makes the story feel like it’s your own; a cliché at this point but very true for Bioshock.
For the most part, the story is pretty solid. Rapture is shown to have been a Utopian society, filled with all of the greatest artists and scientists of the World living in peace and utterly excelling until human nature takes over, as it always does in these cases, when a couple of guys get greedy and the whole places goes to shit. You’re tasked by “Atlas” to take down one of them, Andrew Ryan, a sort of all powerful businessman who rules over Rapture, and of course Atlas is also a villain and you then have to take him down too. The game deals with Objectivist philosophy; Ryan created Rapture as a place where society’s elite could follow their passions and profit from their work without the “parasites” of regular society interfering, a philosophy that I feel is presented in a somewhat neutral way. I've heard it said that Bioshock represents an attack on Objectivism but that’s not entirely true, I mean, the guy built a fully functioning city at the bottom of the freaking ocean, it must have some benefits. The real message here seems to be that taking any philosophy to extremes will have disastrous consequences, so it comes off as more of a discussion of Objectivism and human nature in general. The negative side of Objectivism is more obvious in the various “artists” you meet throughout the game, an insane plastic surgeon and a man who wants pictures of dead people for his “masterpiece,” for example; showing the ugly side of what can happen when people are allowed to indulge in their… erm, “art” without interference or a good slap in the cock.
This next part is probably going to be more of an analysis than a review. It’s my opinion that the game is entirely too long. Not in an “it’s crap and should be 0 minutes long lulz!” kind of way. I’m saying that the section after Andrew Ryan’s death is completely unnecessary and actually serves to ruin the fantastic game that’s come before it. Sometimes you just need to know when to stop; taking the piss out of someone is funny for a bit but carry it on for too long and they start crying and everyone forgets you were funny at one point and remembers you as a bellend.
Here’s how I would have ended Bioshock: Put the final boss fight after Ryan’s death. You know that feeling of completion and closure you get when you see Liquid collapse at the end of Metal Gear Solid? That’s just what was coming as Ryan died, and I fully expected the boss fight with Fontaine to follow, the fact that it didn’t just felt anti-climactic. It makes sense, I mean, the overall message of the game is literally shouted into your face by Ryan and you feel nice and angry about being betrayed and just plain ready to kick some ass. The moral choice system works here too; Tenenbaum uses you to kill Fontaine and leaves you to die if you’ve been a dick to the Little Sisters and helps you to escape if you’ve been nice to them. The fact that each of the endings work just as well with 3-4 hours of gameplay removed can’t be a good sign.
The section that does take place after the scene with Ryan just feels like padding, as if someone finished the game and thought, “Nah, not long enough.” Which it would have been, it’s roughly double the length of any Modern Warfare game even without the last section. Also, the revelation that you’re under mind control is nothing more than lowest-common-denominator garbage. The player just doing what they’re told because it’s a videogame and you’re supposed to follow the narrator should be enough, and surely it’s much easier to arrange a plane crash than to arrange for a sleeper agent to be created years in advance just in case something bad maybe happens? It certainly ties in with the players struggle against the Objectivist Ryan; I mean, all of his ranting about you being a slave would make a lot more sense if you were acting under your own free will and just following orders because of reasons, and makes very little sense given that you had literally NO choice but to follow orders. I suppose they didn’t think that moron action gamers could pick up on this and had to explain it in a ridiculous literal way, which would make sense if this was Gears of War but the rest of the game is actually a fairly intelligent philosophical discussion so why even bother creating a thoughtful and artistic game if you’re just going to flake out at the last minute and pander to the idiots? I guess padding and slotting in some extra mindless shooting, fetch quests and that pathetic “dress as a Big Daddy” escort mission were more important than crafting a complete story that makes sense.
Actually, the mind control thing creates a few plot holes. For example, “Atlas” gives you the choice to rescue the Little Sisters or harvest them for extra ADAM. Now, surely it’s in his best interests for you to get all of the ADAM you can to help you along your way so why in God’s name wouldn’t he just say, “Would you kindly rip their fucking spleens out?” I mean, he’s already been controlling you enough; this wouldn’t have been a deal breaker. At least if you’re not under mind control, actually being given a choice makes some sort of sense. Also, if Fontaine does have you under some kind of absolute mind control, why not just say, “Would you kindly not get the fucking antidote!?” The game seems to suggest that Fontaine’s control is broken after you realise it’s him and not Atlas so if that’s truly the case then why do we need the antidote? As it stands, there seems to be some kind of remnant of his control that can somehow cause you to die but not follow his orders any more. I don’t know why, it’s basically written off as “a science thing” and ignored while you do another fetch quest. The ability to make any kind of allegiance with Tenenbaum while under Fontaine’s ‘control’ also makes no sense, something else that would have been far more easily explainable if you weren’t under weird genetic mind control.
For that matter, let’s say for example that you’ve spent the entirety of the game treating the Little Sisters in the same way that Dawn French treats chocolate eclairs. Why on Earth would she actively help you to escape, in this case? The fact that she’s using you to kill Fontaine is fine, but why would she just leave you to your escape instead of sending a bunch of Big Daddies round for a mega-drill bukkake? You’ve already been betrayed once, it wouldn’t have been a push to have it happen again, and it would certainly have added some weight to the decision to harvest Little Sisters on your next playthrough, as it stands it’s just “Escape as a good guy” or “Escape as a wanker.” Either way you’re not locked under the sea slowly starving to death.
Don’t try and tell me that the bad ending, which I obviously got, makes any kind of sense. Am I supposed to believe that a society constructed a fully functioning city under the sea but couldn’t create a vehicle capable of sending one man to the surface without leaking its entire population? Maybe it was him blasting his way out that leaked all the Splicers but if that’s the case then the whole city would drown and there can’t be a sequel. I’m not sure exactly how deep Rapture is but I’m sure it’s not deep enough to escape a nuclear blast and still be hospitable in time for the sequel set 8 years later. Unless it is deep enough, in which case I’ll shut my fucking mouth. The good ending makes much more sense but really, if you’re going to do multiple endings AND make a sequel then all of the endings should work and make 100% sense in the context of the sequel. I don’t think there even should have been a sequel, to be honest. Despite all of the plot holes and silliness towards the end there are no loose threads or unanswered questions and nothing to suggest that a sequel was necessary other than publisher greed, all a sequel could possibly do is retcon and spoil the plot of the original and diminish its effect in the name of pointless money-spinning. You also have to question the sense in simply having “good” and “evil” endings. This is probably intended to be a criticism of the extreme nature of Objectivism but most people playing aren’t going to be fucking Objectivists and are far more likely to be a mixture of the two, saving Little Sisters when they can but harvesting them when they desperately need a health upgrade, and reflecting this in maybe one more neutral ending would have been swell.
Lastly, the final boss fight is something of a cruel joke. All through the game, the importance of collecting a wide variety of plasmids and tonics and upgrades is emphasised so a good final boss fight for a game of this nature would be one that allows you to win in a variety of ways. But no, you fight a big fuck off hulk thing in a clusterfucky environment in which all of your plasmids are pretty much useless so if you haven’t stockpiled health kits and grenade rounds as I luckily did then you get to die 50 times and have an uncomfortable conversation with your landlord about why there’s an XBox controller embedded in the living room wall.
So overall, a great game with fantastic gameplay, environments, story and themes ruined by roughly 3 hours of the videogame equivalent of a cat shitting in your face. Also, Ayn Rand.