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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Game Review:BioShock

Beauty is only skin deep.

An underwater city so beautiful, so mystifying, so much so that it should be included as one of the 7 wonders of the world, but beneath its magnificent skyline lays a sinister truth – the mutilated citizens of Rapture, as the underwater city is known, roam the buildings, killing anyone foreign in sight. What went so wrong?

The game starts out in the most spectacular fashion ever in recent memory – a tragic plane crash while flying over the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. The next thing you know, you are surrounded by the wreckage of your plane, fire raging, but with your only hope of survival a short distance away: a mysterious lighthouse. All around you, you cannot help but admire how realistic the water looks, how life-like it is. And as you approach the lighthouse, a submarine-like transport greets you, ready to take you down into the horrors of Rapture. Welcome.

The graphical splendor continues as you descend into the world of Rapture. The atmosphere has been expertly constructed with eerie shadows lurking at every few corners. The echoing footsteps of the gigantic Big Daddies ring through the hallways. The light flickers on and off every now and then. The cries and screams of Rapture’s citizens seem so far away, yet so near. A guitar you can play, a toilet you can use, a bottle of wine you can drink – Rapture just seems brimming with life, or so you think.

Along the way, you will pick up numerous audio diaries, which will gradually unravel the fate of this very city you are in right now. A few brilliant twists and turns in the plot leaves you more puzzled, but more wanting to find out the truth, but is it enough?

Of course, Rapture is not a city you would want to make your home, so you are going have to escape it. The arsenal of ordinary weapons may not be something to write home about, but to dismiss the combat mechanics as ordinary would be sheer ignorance. Surely, there must be something beyond the weapons, and there is. All weapons are fully upgradeable, not once, but twice. These upgrades can be accessible through the scarce weapon upgrade machines, which I would not name for fear of spoiling your game, but they have a real nice name for themselves. Accessing these machines is another matter altogether though, as they are usually hidden in corners or areas which may be missed if you intend on speeding through the game. Instead, BioShock encourages you to explore its many rooms extensively, and rest assured you will be rewarded handsomely, not just in the goodies found, but also in the overall enjoyment of the game. It’s more than meets the eye, though. Switch to your left hand and now, you have another utility, or as it is known in the game, plasmid. These are special abilities obtainable as you progress through the game, be it telekinesis, which is essentially a clone of Half-Life 2’s gravity gun and Doom 3: Resurrection of Evil’s grabber, incinerate, which turns your left hand into a flamethrower, or electric bolt, which allows you to stun enemies momentarily. There are many more exciting ones, some of them useful, some of them not so, but it really depends on how you would like to use these special abilities. Striking an electric bolt into a pool of water will fry enemies while incinerating oil lying on the ground will set enemies ablaze - the game forces you unknowingly into taking full advantage of the environment. Wait, how about using your telekinesis powers to stop an enemy’s grenade before you and hurl it back at your enemy? While there are a limited number of special abilities that you can carry at any one time, subsequently, you can purchase more slots for your plasmids as you go along, but more on that later.

Combat is not the only thing in BioShock, and you will realize that soon enough. Take tonics - these give you an edge over the enemies. How? For example, a particular kind of tonic, when taken, will allow you to recover more health when you consume food, while another type of tonic lengthens the time taken for security cameras to respond to your presence, giving you more opportunities of making your way past it without detection. Like plasmids, you can only take so many tonics with you at any one time, but more slots can be purchased. And after you have landed your hands on the research camera, it pays to know that shooting pictures of the enemies give you extra bonuses like making them weaker against your weapons and knowing their weaknesses. These are the unique features that stand BioShock out from the ‘me-too’ crowd of shooters. Fun they may sound, and fun in usage as well.

However, it leaves me scratching my head as to why there are so many ammo-selling vending machines (yeah, you can buy ammo with your stolen loot like cash!) and security cameras in Rapture. Isn’t Rapture supposed to be the utopia of the century? Perhaps that is a question to be answered on another day.

Time upon time, BioShock forces you into some serious decision-making – not only on the choice of plasmids and tonics to carry along with you, but also whether to harvest or rescue the Little Sisters in the game. But to continue with either of the acts, you would have to deal with the Big Daddies first, the one hell of a beast, which are the most challenging enemies in the world of BioShock. Defeating the protectors will leave the Little Sisters defenseless, leaving you to do whatever you want to them. A pondering session soon proceeds. While harvesting gives you more ADAM which you can use to purchase more slots for your plasmids and tonics than rescuing the Little Sisters, being the Little Sisters’ savior nets you rewards like extra ammo, new plasmids and tonics, and more cash as well. Greed or patience? Make a wise choice for the game’s ending will differ according to what you decide to make yourself into. Truly a feat which has not been accomplished by most games out in the market right now.

While security cameras may command irksome security bots that dish out a good chunk of damage, you can make them your friend too. A similar concept applies to the numerous machine gun turrets and rocket-propeller-gun turrets in Rapture too. Would you rather destroy them or would you hack them and turn them against your foes? The choice is yours. Hacking reveals a lesser known component of BioShock – a puzzle, or rather a mini-game, whichever deemed appropriate. But even that isn’t neglected. Child’s play it may look, but the puzzles actually require quick thinking and reflexes, and boy, are they challenging!

But a simple dissection will prove that beauty is indeed only skin-deep. Peel away everything that I just mentioned, and look beyond into the level design of BioShock. It is a missed potential. I hate to use that term especially for a game displaying so many nice touches like BioShock, but that old cliché I must say: just another shooter. BioShock truly deserves more than just a handful of enemies. Heck, even the bosses are just stronger variants of the normal enemies. While the astonishingly limited variety of enemies may survive the first few levels or so, the fact may start to drag you down soon after. But what’s more worrying is that how the game seems to constantly throw enemies at you mindlessly. You know that there is a problem when the game gives you the obviously expected kind of scenario at every area – there is no surprise element. While this problem is forgivable if the enemies do change their tactics periodically to perhaps inject some freshness into the gameplay and compensate for the lack of enemy variety, the strategies of BioShock’s foes stay incredibly stagnant throughout the whole course of the game, making the levels in the game quite a bore and repetitive.

Another of BioShock’s flaw is to place all the enemies right from the start of the game, leaving no new enemy variety to anticipate. As far as the enemies are concerned, the Big Daddies are the only ‘colorful’ foes. Everyone else seems to lack personality – why do they want to attack you? What is their aim? All said and done, BioShock’s level design is certainly flawed in some way or another.

Final comments
A graphically impressive game blessed with an immersive atmosphere and an intricate story, but the level design fails to live up to the hype and my expectations. It is a pity, really. Otherwise, BioShock is a pretty solid game. It gives you plenty of decisions to make, encourages exploration and the hacking puzzle mini-game is a welcome addition. The Vita-Chamber, a place where you will be resurrected after you died, but with the health of the enemies staying the same, though cited as many as making the game easy, is a wise design choice – come to think of it, the game would be relatively frustrating without it.


The Good:
- Graphically stunning
- Great atmosphere
- Intriguing story with twists and turns
- Upgradeable weapons
- Plasmids and tonics are admirable efforts in standing the game out from the crowd
- Encourages exploration
- Using environment to your advantage
- Decision-making
- Cool hacking mini-game puzzle
- Vita-Chamber a wise design choice

The Bad:
- Lack of variety in enemies
- Enemies’ tactics do not change throughout the entire game – game becomes repetitive
- Game places all types of enemies right from the start – loss of anticipation for new enemy variety
- Most enemies lack personality


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