Saturday, July 17, 2010

Would You Kindly?

Yeah, yeah... as usual, I'm way behind in playing games.  Still, for anyone who's curious, Bioshock is an AWESOME game.

I don't really like the idea of Action/FPS/RPG hybrids all that much; I'd much rather play a full-on RPG that lets me think about strategy and tactics rather than twitchily respond.  In practice, though, some of the best games that I've played fall into this category... the recent Elder Scrolls games, which are more towards the RPG end of the spectrum, and Bioshock/System Shock, which feel much more like FPS games with heavy RPG elements.

Somehow it works, possibly because I'm better at FPS games than I think.  Even though I don't often play these games, I've noticed that when I get into one, after a while it really does become second nature.  I develop decent reflexes, can strafe around an opponent, become adept at zooming in through a scope and pulling off headshots, and otherwise doing FPS-y things.  Games like Bioshock are great in that they offer a multitude of ways to overcome any obstacle, so even if a particular enemy is hard to shoot, you can switch to a special power for an area-of-effect attack or other approach.

Bioshock's atmosphere was terrific.  It starts out feeling just slightly dystopian - slightly crazed, slightly disheveled - but after a few hours, you reach into the full-on System Shock level of horror.  It presents amazingly creepy tableaus, haunting images that shock you and stick with you.  It isn't all art direction, either.  They do some really simple but effective stuff, like suddenly cut the lights, and make you listen to several seconds of violent sounds before the lights come back on and monsters are staring at you.  They also do amazing things with shadows, particularly early on in the game; as terrifying as seeing an act is, it can seem even scarier if you're only seeing it second-hand, flickering across a wall in a macabre black-on-orange dance.


The key to Bioshock, though, is probably its story.  It belongs to that rare element in the world of video games: an original idea.  Bioshock takes place in Rapture, a fallen paradise, a stunning technological achievement built not only from steel and glass but also from Objectivist beliefs, an unswerving faith in business, in the moral imperative of selfishness.  From that starting point, they sketch out a sprawling, fascinating tale of Rapture's rise, decline, and eventual disintegration.  Unlike a traditional RPG, you don't learn the story of Rapture by reading books; you see it all around you, in the faded posters on the wall; and you hear it, through recorded announcements and audio diaries.  That world is filled with characters, some already dead, and they grow to be quite complex and interesting over the course of the game. 

Probably the most infamous aspect of Bioshock is its morality system.  I wasn't as impressed by this as I was by everything else.  As with Fallout, it's a very black-and-white setup: press one button to be good, press another button to be bad.  It's also less varied than in Fallout, not to mention Dragon Age or Oblivion; you are only presented with the same choice over and over again, so there's no reason not to make the same decision each time.  The consequences for gameplay are minor; being evil helps you more in the short term, while being good will eventually lead to some extra benefits.  Anyways... the moral system isn't bad, it's just been done way better before.


Of course, I found myself constantly thinking of System Shock 2 while playing this.  When I first walked into Ryan's outer office and saw the dead body, I immediately thought of the scene where you see the captain in SS2.  I was glad to see that they weren't repeating themselves, though.  The final confrontation with Ryan was chilling.  Atlas's revelation was cool; again, though, it's hard not to think of SS2, and I'm guessing that it was much more effective for people who hadn't played the other game.

As I mentioned above, I do appreciate how the game supports different modes of play.  I focused on hacking abilities as much as I could; late in the game, the Winter's Breath 3 attack plus my full complement of tech splices let me convert every turret, camera, and bot I encountered with ease.  I actually rarely used my Eve for attacks, so I generally had a full bar and maximum hypos.  In combat, I relied very heavily on my fully-upgraded shotgun: 00 buck for most enemies, and electric buck for the big daddies.  I occasionally used the machine gun when in more open areas.  After the Sander Cohen level, I used the crossbow whenever I could in sniper situations.  I really enjoyed this mode of gameplay - lots of stealth (I had the splice that turns you invisible while still, and added the splices to quiet your footsteps even though I never used the wrench), coupled with rapid aims and quick squirts of death.  On the other hand, I rarely used the grenade launcher, and never used the chemical thrower, other than during the final fight with Fontaine.

I played through the game the good way.  I really liked the last couple of levels; I tend to hate escort-type missions, but with the tools at your disposal, it was actually a fun challenge to keep the Little Sister alive and unharmed.  The final boss fight was definitely challenging; I used up all my first aid kits, but managed to defeat him on my first try.  In retrospect, some more boss fights along the way would have been fun; there were just a couple, and other than having much more HP than normal, they weren't all that interesting.

Favorite character: Sander Cohen
Favorite enemy: Houdini Splicer
Favorite vending machine: Ammo machine ("Mi amigo!  El ammo!")
Favorite weapon: Toss-up between shotgun and crossbow
Favorite ammo: I love the idea of the Trap Bolt, though I probably got myself as often as I got any enemies.
Favorite primary splice: Winter's Breath, though I love the idea of Insect Swarm
Favorite secondary splice: Invisibility (whatever it's called - it really changes the way you play the game)
Favorite area: Sander Cohen's, with Arcadia (original form) a close second
Favorite music: Beyond the Sea
Favorite shocking moment (repeating): When you walk up to search a body's corpse, and they suddenly sit bolt upright and start laughing at you.  I got in the habit of always having my shotgun out when I searched bodies, just so I could quickly put them down while I was still jumping.
Favorite shocking moment (singular): Gosh, there are so many... maybe the ghost scene with Ryan's mistress, or the doctor's surgical chambers.
Favorite audio tape: Again, too many to choose from... Ryan's tended to be the best
Favorite radio conversation: "Would you kindly?"


I think it's funny that an action RPG has a much better money system than any real RPG that I've played lately.  Yeah, it stinks that they limit your wallet, but it's also realistic; it's absurd to think of adventurers carrying around the kind of change that they do.  And in terms of pacing your purchase, it works just right.  You need to buy stuff in order to progress, because you can't collect enough ammo just from your enemies; there are some good things worth saving up for (particularly if buying stuff with Adam); so, you get a nice, interesting tension between buying what you want now and what you need eventually.

Anyways.  I'm happy to see for myself that Bioshock was able to pick up System Shock's legacy.  Even though it isn't a sequel, it capture most of the feel of that great game, and I'm hoping that this franchise has a more successful end.

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