An Agree To Disagree Review
As 2K's FPS turns a decade old,
FBT & TheMorty go head-to-head as they replay the original deep blue, sci-fi classic.
Rescue by FBT
There’s a lot of games I love, but Bioshock is as close to my favourite as is possible. At its core it’s nothing new – We make our way through relatively linear levels killing anything that moves; It’s a shooter and conforms to shooter standards. But that’s just FPS DNA and Bioshock DNA can be altered, changed, spliced … The setting, a city beneath the sea called Rapture is more believable than most ‘real-world’ game environments and the enemies are as much victims as villains. Most of all, it has a complex plot that you get tangled up in; a story that like a good book, you disappear into. All in, Bioshock adds up to an experience that transcends its medium – like all good art.
FPS as a genre is just digital Cowboys and Indians and usually you have the same emotional attachment but Bioshock got under your skin like a plasmid. It has adult inferences, plot plots and themes – it’s a grown-up’s game; you ponder the values and philosophies while surviving a complex horror that evokes the uneasiness of Stephen King and the sickness of cinema’s Seven as much as Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, from which Irrational took their inspiration. While many games are adult due to their content or appropriateness, Bioshock is just thematically mature, intellectual.
Andrew Ryan, a Howard Hughes-style industrialist created Rapture as a place ‘where the great would not be constrained by the small’; namely the ‘parasites’ (government meddling, religious belief, the less fortunate) – only the Self mattered. Freed of morals and regulation, Rapture made huge if questionable advances in the pursuit of art and invention – but those geniuses needed someone to pick up after them, to serve them drinks, to stop the place flooding and that created a class-struggle comparable to Metropolis. Along with those who failed to succeed, a destitute and disregarded under-class formed. Into this mix was thrown ‘Adam’, a DNA-splicing substance found in sea-slugs which was used to create Plasmids, tonics which gave the users remarkable abilities. The denizens of Rapture abused this latest fad as a distraction and edge on competitors while others turned to religion to help contend with the isolation, but the biggest change was the success of Fontaine, who owned the docks bringing in the slugs. Fontaine’s power rivalled Ryan’s (who knew a conman when he saw one) – he responded by ‘removing’ Fontaine and nationalising his industries; an act of government and the beginning of Ryan’s slide towards the dictatorship he once despised. Meanwhile a working-class hero rose in the shape of Atlas. Supported by the under-class, Atlas declares war and Ryan seals his own fate. He orders Adam be infused with a pheromone so he can direct those addicted to it against Atlas – compromising his one belief; the Self. And it’s just as Ryan and Atlas are at a stalemate that our Silent Hero lands. Now that’s a backstory. And best of all, none of that is in an opening cut scene. Instead, we’re deposited into Rapture via a plane crash. Gasping for air surrounded by fire and debris, we spot a forlorn lighthouse and start swimming. As we piece it together, we realise Rapture’s story isn’t over yet.
Arriving in Rapture is like being dropped into Paris in the midst of the Nazi occupation. Underneath all the decay is a beautiful world at the height of art and refinement. Picking your way through the rubble there’s a persistent sense of horror – the kind you can’t see, the kind you build up in your own mind, the best kind – it rotted on the inside as well as out yet you can picture upper-class Rapture folks enjoying cocktail parties and taking in shows; it’s so real Rapture could actually be out there, somewhere. There’s water leaking everywhere, it groans and creaks and gives way; it feels like an incredible achievement and a folly, built through sheer will. The light from the city gives us glimpses of the seabed but it’s not the Great Barrier reef or warm blue tones with god rays from the surface; it’s dark, dank and cold – there’s nothing, no escape, no leaving, nowhere to go. You start to feel contained, claustrophobic and understand why the Rapture citizens eventually fell into abuse and extremes; under the art-deco façade is an oppressive, pressurised place. Audio recordings reveal the struggles and it feels as if most people lived in fear it would collapse in on itself at any second; instead it was society that couldn’t handle the pressure. Splicers (those deformed by Adam and controlled by Ryan) were just caught in the middle and we’re in the middle of it too; this isn’t just a case of a heroic ‘you’re the only one who can do this’ as we cut a way towards a boss battle, turns out we were always the only one who can do this.
As we fight our way past those wretched addicts to reach Ryan, locked away in his office as his Rome burns, Bioshock is revealed as a solid shooter. The Splicers attack on sight but they’re sorrowful creatures crying out for lost loves, apologising for horrific acts (‘I found her like that’), clinging to some memory of a better time while they search desperately for their next Adam fix. Dressed in 1940s attire with masquerade party masks to hide their deformities, they leap, scuttle and in later levels, clamber on ceilings to ambush. They fire guns and use plasmids too but they also attack with fish hooks, pipes, anything they can find. And then there’s the little sisters.
Roaming the corridors, playfully singing and dancing, the Little Sisters were once young girls now brainwashed into drinking the Adam-infused blood of corpses littering Rapture’s corridors. If that wasn’t sickening enough, they do this to feed the slugs implanted in their bellies, filtering the Adam for collection. That makes them invaluable. And that’s why they have Big Daddy. Hearing one clumping about fills you with a mix of dread and excitement. They’re horrible, sad things. Somewhere inside that stinking hulk is a man, stripped of his individuality and driven only to protect little sisters, moaning and calling out for her. Seeing them be gentle with the Sisters just breaks your heart, and seeing them tear apart Splicers also breaks your heart. I have to kill that thing? Once you’ve put him down though, you have the most infamous moral-choice decision in gaming. Kill or save a little girl. Seems like a no-brainer and the first time you face it, with her cowering in the corner it’s effecting. We’ve been told there’s still a little girl in there somewhere; we’ve also been told the girl is just a husk and killing her to get the Adam is the only way you’ll survive down here. It’s you or them. That’s not cowboys and Indians.
The weapons we use are familiar but the real shooter selling point is the Plasmids. Electro Bolt to stun or electrocute Splicers, Incinerate to chargrill them or melt ice. We also get to launch swarms of angry Bees, hypnotise Big Daddies and so on – they are a variation on any fantasy game’s spell casting but they’re hella fun and seeing adverts for Plasmids as life-aids and health tonics you realise how desperate this war became with everything, including people weaponised.
By the time we reach Ryan, we have mixed feelings – our Silent Hero has seen a lot of loss, horror and sadness, and it is completely Ryan’s fault. We should be ready to murder him but as we find him holed up in his office playing golf, both resigned to his fate and unbowed we feel some pity, and a little intimidated by this giant of a man. Ryan’s control of the Splicers seemed like his final mistake, but there was one more. It’s the biggest twist in gaming and Bioshock carries it off with such class that Ryan’s words -a man chooses, a slave obeys- haunt you. Partly because Ryan was right. I’ve never been angry at myself as a character before. I am a slave.
It’s true that this scene is as incredible as the rest of the game is a let-down, experience-wise. It continues to be a great shooter, a beautiful environment and an unsettling journey but it’s much more generic after this. But the ending saves it; easily one of the most moving, satisfying cut-scenes of all time – assuming you took the ‘Good’ route. If you took the bad, it’s amazingly dark. Bioshock is as close to art as gaming ever has gotten, that it’s a great shooter as well just makes it perfect. At the start, we descend to the city and hear Ryan’s pre-recorded welcome ‘with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city’ – it has.
I’ll be in Rapture forever.
Harvest by TheMorty
2007. A year when gaming just kept releasing more of the boring same. Call of Duty 4, Halo 3 and Half-Life 2 were the top sellers as the market drowned in a flood of sequels. As developers went for the tried and tested money spinners, no-one was brave enough to release anything remotely unique in the FPS genre. That is, until Bioshock came along. At last we had an FPS that was diverse enough to move away from the traditional setting and immerse you in an unexplored location under the sea. One of the biggest mysteries of Planet Earth regards what lies beneath – with over 70% of the it being water and around 95% of that yet to be explored – absolutely anything could be down there. Until Bioshock the closest we’d ever got to exploring the blue was SEGA’s Echo the Dolphin some 15 years previous. So it’s fair to say there was nothing like this game in the FPS genre – or in any genre of gaming at all. With my hopes high I headed into the first playthrough, but was bitterly disappointed with what I encountered.
It starts with a fantastic opening sequence where a plane crash sends us tumbling into the drink (a fitting example of why it's against the law to smoke a mile high). As we surface, an Art Deco lighthouse, miles from civilization greets us. Inside, a strange orb awaits which plunges us into a world beneath the waves. At first, I was astounded by the lure of what resembles a 40-fathoms deep Las Vegas but that's all smoke, mirrors and an unhealthy dose of make-up. The hidden truth is that Rapture is a rundown world full of nothingness. With the exception of the odd scripted moment where of a shark swims by one of raptures many dirty windows, we never truly get to experience life on the ocean floor. All bar one level you’re indoors and even that brief flirtation with the water is just you trying to get from one building to the next. The entire game could be set in a rundown motel and you wouldn't really notice the difference - as you spend most of your time going room-to-room in the hope you’ll find a shred of ammo, a half empty Adam refill or an Audio Diary to give you a resemblance of backstory.
See, the well-hidden Audio Diaries are very important to your gaming experience since Bioshock is not driven by cinematic cutscenes. Rather frustratingly, there's a couple of Quicktime moments at inopportune times and you really have to rely on your own discovery to advance your understanding of the plot. Many first-person games have taken the collectible route, classics such as Doom, Half-Life and the recent Fallout sequels are advocates of this technique, but in Bioshock, this doesn't have the same effect and instead makes the story feel stale. When you have to stop to search every room in the building to make sure you don’t miss a second of the story, it prevents you from feeling fully immersed in the survivalist nature of the game. This might work fine in an RPG where you there's a slower pacing, or you can return at a later date if you miss something, but in a linear FPS the collectible aspect really feels out of place.
Mechanically, Bioshock isn’t a bad first person shooter but what makes it feel stiff is the lack of dual wield functionality. BS2 clears this up, but theirs a gaping hole in the first game that the plasmids alone can't fill – as your ability to react to deadly situations is severely limited. The choice between going into battle with a plasmid or a pistol often leaves you frantically switching back and forth as quick as you can to avoid ending up dead. This is particularly annoying when fighting Splicers that love close quarter combat - by the time you switch over to your gun, you’re already dead.
Mind, I shouldn’t really complain about the difficulty of this, especially when you consider how easy Bioshock is to complete. Even playing on 'Hard' difficulty, you know that the worst case scenario post-death is waking up in a Vita chamber with no re-spawned enemies or reloaded checkpoints. Getting out of your chamber and carrying on as you were doesn’t have the same impact as the Borderlands model where one wrong move and you’ll have half of your wallet wiped out – now that’s a real fear of death!
Despite the lack of slots available for your plasmids, forcing you to choose the few you want to carry at the annoyingly scarce vending machines throughout Rapture, I concede the biotic weapons are pretty cool. Sadly, the more these plasmids level up the more you realise just how easy they make the game. Those cold, dark alleys where you would usually approach with caution become a breeze if you fire off the Insect Swarm and send a hive of Bees off to attack any of the targets in the room. That particular strategy gives you the heads up of who is hiding and creates ample time to prepare for your assault. Checking out the terrain in Bioshock is an indication to whats ahead and gives you fair warning of what’s to come. If ever you see a pool of water on the floor, you can be guaranteed to encounter some villains up ahead - so best get the Electro Bolt ready and prepare to zap the floor. The copy and paste nature of the environment in Bioshock makes the game too predictable and you become lackadaisical, often ploughing through each level with an air of invincibility, hardly breaking a sweat. What should be a taut, suspenseful thriller ends up feeling like a joy ride and while that can be enjoyable in the right setting (a la Bulletstorm) Bioshock just isn’t that kind of game, often it feels like that movie that you end up laughing all the way through, not realising it’s supposed to be a dark drama.
The little sisters are an eerily odd touch. They’re designed to play with your morals and emotions. You can waste an entire cache of ammo defeating a Big Daddy protector, only to be presented with an obvious choice. While killing a child or rescuing her might seem like a no-brainer, this isn’t a straightforward Paragon/Renegade decision. Atlas tells you to kill them, after all, they’re just husks masquerading as children and they’re no different to your average splicer. They even have this evil Gollum look about them to try and push you to making the right decision. Atlas also informs you'll be heavily rewarded for harvesting them and have a shed load more Adam at your disposal. So at this point, why wouldn't you kill them? You’ve trusted Atlas implicitly to now – so why would you go against him? He’s your ticket out of here… your voice of reason… What Bioshock fails to tell you is that IF you follow him – you’ve made one major wrong move and it’s effectively killed your game. Sure, you can still carry on to complete the game – but harvest one Little Sister’s power and you're condemned. There’s no majority winner, there’s no chance of redemption. No matter what you do after this point you may as well just kill them all. The only way to get the good ending, is to Rescue every single Little Sister you meet and making even one ill-informed or uneducated choice kills any chance of that for you. It's feels a bit unfair...
Their Big Daddy bodyguards are seen to be ruthless, killing machines. You're shown not to mess with them very early on as you see them mercilessly take down a group of splicers through the safety of some unbreachable glass. However, in reality, they're not all that hard to defeat. Firstly, a Big Daddy will only respond when provoked or when his Little Sister is under attack. If you have a few villains on your tail then, fear not, just lure them toward a Big Daddy and take the easy way out as he'll destroy them without opening fire toward you, allowing you to hide behind them like it's your big brother on the school playground. When it’s time to kill them, you get time to set up the room and catch them off guard. You're given free reign to set traps and hack turrets to make stabbing the Daddy in the back all the easier. Again, this makes the game very easy to beat and takes any suspense out of the level. You're even given a warning the first time you encounter one which I absolutely hated. The first encounter could have been magnificent and been a trial and error of terror, where you brick it and open fire without realising what you've done. Instead, the mood is well and truly killed!
The antagonists are quite frustrating and neither are really Raptures Darth Vader. For the first part of the game we've been solely focused on killing Ryan. Sure, we’ve had our head filled with conflicting stories from both him and Atlas which does add a bit of mystery to the plot, but when you finally encounter him it's all a bit pointless and surreal. After an astonishing plot twist, Ryan gives you a command that you can’t not obey. While this is certainly apt and helps the story to pick up some much needed pace, it’s incredibly frustrating not being able to pick a side. Despite his cries of "a man chooses - a slave obeys" you end up obeying regardless and you are unable to do anything about it - even though you know your impending actions are inherently wrong. It’s such a pivotal moment that sends you off on a revenge driven rampage, but being given a choice and only having one option seems a very dated mechanic. It would have been much better had we acted without knowing the truth and only discovered it afterwards.
As FBT argues, Bioshock is as close to art as gaming gets - and that’s certainly hard to disagree with. The art-deco paintjob throughout the halls mixed with a 1920's soundtrack is certainly something we'd not seen in shooters before and has undoubtedly inspired games which have come after it. It won a number of high profile awards and it does have a distinct style that is very unique in the marketplace. However, like all art it’s true worth lies in the eyes of the beholder and one man’s Picasso can easily be another man’s Damien Hirst. So for FBT, this game is a timeless classic that he looks on with great fondness. For me, it's a glass case of maggots feeding on a rotting cow's head.
2007 | Irrational Games | 2K
win, xbox 360/One PS3/4