Posted on January 30, 2008 by Flames
Review by James ‘Grim’ Desborough
Somewhere dark and secret a rich lunatic is spending his money to gather a cult-like group of followers all devoted to a libertarian dream of boundless selfishness and runaway capitalism in the mistaken belief that this will somehow fix the problems of the world without any need for that pesky social conscience stuff. Still, enough about the US elections and Ron Paul and let’s talk about Bioshock.
Alright, I know I’m late getting around to reviewing this since everyone and their dog already has but I think you should really get through a game and understand it before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboards in this case) and I think Bioshock deserves a review from a role-player’s perspective since it has mostly been looked at from the first-person shooter perspective.
Some quick technical notes, my machine is underpowered in some regards and overpowered in others from what Bioshock demands, my processor is a 2.1/2.2 single core processor and my video card is a 512 mb ATI x1300 series, I’m running on 2 gig of memory. Basically all things considered I’m around the minimum spec required for the PC version of Bioshock, which is the version I’m reviewing. Apparently the PC version is capable of better graphics than the Xbox version, I wouldn’t know since I couldn’t run it at full whack and we didn’t buy the Xbox version (I can’t play FPS games with the console sticks for toffee).
We bought the collectors edition and for our extra money we got a rather excellent Big Daddy figure which was solid and weighty resin with good detail and put the Assassin’s Creed collector’s edition figurine to utter shame. It also came in a nice, distressed, tin box (though it was rather spoiled by having all the company info plastered over the rusted effect) a Moby E.P. of his music for the game and a making-of DVD. As I said, the figure was brilliant, the making-of DVD was rather pointless and tiresome, if computer game companies are going to do movie-like things like this they really need to inject some personality into what they’re doing or have someone TV trained doing it for them to hold your interest. The music was nice, but not essential. I think an art book or a version of one of the in game posters, or some postcards from Rapture would have been a better insert than the making-of DVD, otherwise the extra loot was pretty good compared to other games.
Bioshock tells the tale of a fallen utopia, I’ll try not to give too much away but you play jack, a survivor of a plane wreck in the mid-atlantic (actually the North Atlantic near Greenland and Iceland where the main plane route is if the coordinates given for Rapture’s location are right) who discovers this rotting vision and plays a key role in breaking a stalemate between two opposing forces there.
Rapture is an underwater city built by a visionary industrialist called Andrew Ryan. Ryan and his philosophy are very much a representation of Ayn Rand and Objectivism/Libertarianism, which, as I noted with the earlier joke, is rather relevant to things going on currently. You could view Bioshock as a scathing critique of the re-emerging fad for Libertarian and Objectivist thought and its place – in the US at least – as the seemingly radical alternative to orthodox politics. It doesn’t save all its social comment for Randroids though, socialist worker’s principles take a bit of a bashing too, as does ardent capitalism and possibly the very idea of utopian ideals at all.
Rapture was completed at the end of the Second World War and Ryan took his chosen elite from all around the world, along with others necessary for the maintenance of his vision, down beneath the waves to start anew. At first everything went very well, science advanced rapidly, artists were free to work without limitation or censorship and without regulation new businesses began to spring up and make great strides in engineering and the applications of the new science. The rot set in rapidly however, a criminal element emerged, smuggling from the outside world, contact with which was forbidden by Rapture’s only law, and creating a black economy which supported a mob boss, Fontaine, who began to challenge Ryan’s power both through his criminality and his legitimate operations, not least of all the advent of Plasmids, a form of genetic modification pioneered by a former Nazi scientist that rapidly began to change the population of Rapture both physically and mentally. At the same time the runaway capitalism and lack of social provision in Rapture rapidly lead to the creation of a resentful working underclass who began to chafe at the injustices of Ryan’s elite.
Under assault Ryan began to compromise his principles, nationalising businesses, instituting methods of social control and propaganda and sending security teams and private detectives after the mob as well as trying to crush the burgeoning workers movement. Eventually things couldn’t hold and, made worse by the insanity the plasmids were causing, things broke out into open rebellion and destruction in 1959 until by 1960 Rapture was a shattered and faded dream, become a place of violence and stalemate between Ryan and his lieutenants and his main opponent.
Enter Jack, the part you play, and the balance tips.
Even running at the lower end of the graphical specifications in an attempt to compensate for some glitches and a slower processor the game is stunning. Extremely well textured and well realised the graphics draw you in to the game, particularly the water effects which distort the vision and help establish the world of Rapture as truly existing within its underwater setting. The sense of pressure and dank, dark ruin is ever present and very atmospheric.
The style is a peculiar fusion of Art Deco and Cold War era soviet technical aesthetic. There’s a crude functionality to a lot of the machinery on show while at the same time there’s a great deal of ‘forgotten future’ clean lines and Gernsback influence to the detail of the design, a modernist, futurist slant to everything that makes Rapture a sort of archaeological find of an antiquated view of the future. Including modern elements like stem cells and genetic manipulation makes things a little schitzophrenic but does help keep the game relevant to modern ideas and dilemmas even if if does detract from the overall mood of the game.
The real triumphs, to my mind, are the propaganda posters, mini films and radio broadcasts, all done in a 30s and 40s style which, while sometimes comedic, do, somehow, manage to increase the sinister air that the game has about it, even before you run into Little Sisters (and yes, little girls ARE spooky) and the cetacean sounding booms of the Big Daddys.
Gameplay is pretty basic, your standard first-person shooter fare for the most part. Steer with the mouse, move with the keys and blast things with guns or fry them with your plasmid enhanced special powers. The game does handily include an in-game map, which is invaluable, and a compass director in the main screen which, if you have no sense of direction like me, helps you find your way around the levels without getting quite so lost. The main thrust of the game is in one direction, moving the plotline forward, but like Half-Life you don’t feel directed so much since you’re following an engrossing storyline. I’d even say that this aspect of the gameplay is better than Half-Life since you can go wandering off to a limited degree in Bioshock and rummage through rooms and areas you don’t have to before progressing to the next stage.
Even though I’m running the game close to minimum spec there were a few problems that I felt were worth mentioning. ATI cards and Bioshock do not get on very well, even with hotfixes, patching and updated drivers. I could get the game to run but had to switch off most of the special effects leading to a reduced experience. Additionally there were spots on the map in certain areas where the game would freeze for 10-30 seconds at a time with five or ten seconds of action before the next freeze up. These were mercifully short but since one of the places this happened a lot was in a protect/rescue section this was mind-numbingly tedious.
Bioshock is a wonderfully immersive game that bears comparison with both the old System Shock games (though purists will find it less intense and detailed than those games) and with Half-Life. Rapture makes for a fascinating world, so much so that I’m putting together a fanbook RPG thing for it which I’ll link to here when it is done and the inclusion of both Objectivism and quandries over genetic modification make the game relevant and modern, despite its historical setting and its ‘forgotten future’ style. Do yourself a favour and at least play it.
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