Monday, November 26, 2007

Review: BioShock for Xbox 360

** Spoilers **
I know, BioShock was released way back in August, it's November (barely), why am I still talking about this? After the long Thanksgiving weekend, I finally put the nail in the coffin. What took so long? I work a lot, I had a pretty big vacation at the beginning of November, and I had this Halo 3 diversion in between. What more can be said about this game? I think quite a bit.

I nearly quit the game. This is really the inspiration for this post. I talked to another friend last week, a pretty big gamer himself, and it came out that he quit BioShock in the same spot I was close to quitting in. This is the point where you have to save the trees in Arcadia. Saving the trees by itself is a fine goal, but it came in a somewhat confusing level, and it came after a long pre-amble to this actual goal. The level just felt like it went on and on. But I slogged through this level, and I am glad I did...

When the game starts, the game is nothing but confusion for the player. You don't know why, from a story perspective, you are doing what you are doing. You land in the middle of the Atlantic and you just happen to crash near a lighthouse of sorts, which just happens to lead to this beautiful underwater city. Always seemed farfetched, but you went with it, and you listened to the radio messages from Atlas telling you what to do and why you should. But you aren't given a choice what to do, you are in effect on rails. You do get the choice to Harvest or Rescue the Little Sisters, which are protected by the Big Daddies, but why? They don't bother you as you move through levels, but you are put in a position to have to do something to these creepy girls or you won't be able to move through the game. The choice comes so early in the game, so you can start upgrading the character, without much explanation, that you just feel bad about doing it, that is if you think about it. The presence of this choice though is what elevates the game over other shooters because you have some sense of this affecting the outcome of the game. But as you will see, you don't really get that payoff. From there, you have nearly too much choice about how to get to goals, but you go from goal one to two to three and a big arrow points you along the way, all the while dealing with Little Sisters to upgrade. I think this is why I nearly quit, the section where you are on rails without truly understanding why, again from the story, goes on to long. That is until you get to Ryan.

The whole point of the game until you get to Ryan is to get to Ryan and kill him. When you get to Ryan, you completely understand how on rails you are. This plot point totally explains what is going on, and it's a beautiful way to explain the standard goal-oriented rails of any shooter. It is so beautiful in fact that you in some ways grow disappointed that after this junction in the game you aren't given any actual choices, you have broken free of the mind control that Fontaine had you under, but the game effectively restarts. Instead of Ryan as the bad buy, it's Fontaine, and instead of Atlas as in your ear, it's Tennenbaum. Thankfully, part II is much shorter than part 1, but the gameplay doesn't really change at all. I wish once the character, Jack in case you missed it or didn't remember, is free, gameplay changed to give you multiple paths to get to Fontaine, the final boss in the game. In fact, as you listen to Fontaine and execute Tennenbaum's goals, he mocks you over the radio, escalating your frustration at not having control over really what you are supposed to do.

The final fight between you and Fontaine is, well for me, anticlimactic. He fights just like a Big Daddy. Actually he is easier than the Big Daddy because you get to fight him in such a wide-open space. A lot of the Big Daddy fights are in close quarters, so it was hard to side-step, but not Fontaine. He has a Big Daddy like bull rush, which is easy to dodge, so you can unload on him with whatever weapon you choose. Side note: you can carry too many weapons in the game. Halo has had this right since the first release, you should only be able to carry a limited number of weapons. In BioShock, you can carry I think 6-8 weapons, and they all have multiple ammunition types. Crazy. With this much artillery, in addition to the complement of Plasmids you have (another 5-6), Fontaine is easy to beat, and it requires no thought, just unload your heaviest weapons and your done.

Once you defeat Fontaine, the ending, the movie, is variable based on how you dealt with the Little Sisters throughout the game. You can read up on the variations on Wikipedia, but they aren't nearly enough to care about replaying the game making this one choice in the game differently. It's a letdown again that there aren't whole different branches of the game from the point you kill Ryan to the end.

While BioShock is a very good shooter with RPG elements, I don't think it deserves perfect scores or 95%. If I were going with a review system of something out of 5 anythings, let's just call them Exceptions, I give the game 4.25 exceptions. For the mathematically challenged, that is an 85%. Technically, the game is near perfect, but I don't think the story completely meshes with the gameplay. There is one bit of the technical that was a bit aggravating. You discover the story mainly through radio messages, and they can be hard to hear even when still, there is just so much audio at all times. Not to mention the radio "static" and a lot of heavily purposefully accented speech, it's hard to understand a lot of times.

A Special Note On Achievements
I really have a enjoy/hate relationship with the Xbox 360 Achievement system. Most gamers I know are addicted to them, and I have a bit of this tendency, but my main problem with them is how they ruin the gaming experience. How? They pull you out of the game all the time. It would be like while watching a movie with an onscreen prompt telling you "Act 1", "Act 2", "Act 3", or what chapter of a DVD you were in, or having that old VH-1 style pop-up video on everything you watched. It sucks. The end of BioShock is a perfect example. After you think you might have beat Fontaine, an achievement for it immediately appears, before you are even really sure the game is over, but that achievement sure did ruin the suspense for you. And the achievements turn playing the games into work. If you are playing and you get these bragging rights points for it, you should make sure you are going to get as many achievements as possible right? Wouldn't it be stupid to play and not get the points? Well then, I better google how to play the game to get as many points as possible for it I guess. Listen to this, planning to play a game. It's crazy, but a lot of gamers are doing this with every title they get. I want off the treadmill. But I need help. I want the option, hey maybe it's there and I didn't see it, to turn off achievement notification, I want it to be passive. I also want though, if I do choose to participate, some progress indicator on how the achievement meta-game per title is going. When BioShock has an achievement called Tonic Collector that requires you to get 53 items throughout the course of the game, and I can't see how far off the mark I am when I finish the game, just pisses me off. You aren't giving me enough information for me to decide if I want to keep playing the achievement meta-game for any particular game. I sure hope the next 360 update gives some love to the achievement system.