So obviously spoilers. All the spoilers ever, completely ruining every aspect of the game. There’s not a sentence of this you should read before finishing what is a very good game. Spoilers. Spoilers. Have I mentioned, stuff here will spoil surprises? And ruin the game.
This isn’t a list of reasons why BioShock is a bad game. It isn’t. It’s an excellent game. This is a list of reasons why I think it doesn’t merit the highest score possible.
I thoroughly enjoyed the vast majority of Bioshock. It’s a 9/10 game, and if limited to five stars, it would be the full five (which it will be where I’m reviewing it). But it is unquestionably not a 10/10 game, nor indeed a 97% game or whatever hyperbolic, “we’d better give it more than we gave Half-Life 2” marks it might have received. To credit it with such perfection simply doesn’t make sense.
1) The narrative gradually tears and flails around like a frayed windsock, failing to see any of its threads through to an end, beyond simply killing people who were previously alive. What’s to become of Rapture? A sequel? Why not let me explore it once it was over, to see the bits I missed, see it in peace? What happens to Tenenbaum?
2) The final boss fight, which Kieron mentioned a while back, was just awful. It’s not just out of place for the rest of the game. It’s a bloody terrible boss fight. It’s far easier to left-mouse your way through than any of the early Big Daddy fights, which is appalling. I loathe boss fights, and I’m only interested in them when they demand cunning over luck and reflexes. This asked for neither, letting me kill Fontaine with only a few crossbow bolts, no plasmids at all, and at its most ridiculous, allowing me to hack a security bot, presumably while Mr All Powerful stood still tapping his toes, politely waiting.
3) Amazingly, it was unoriginality that really got to me by the end. I’m a bio-genetically engineered being, created to perform the duties of my evil master while believing I was working for the side of good, only to rebel against my creator using the very super-human powers he gave me… So it’s Deus Ex again then, but with the cast on radio. Which is such a massive shame, after the fantastic Brechtian “Would You Kindly” moment. It’s such an extraordinary point in the game – in any game ever – as the inevitabilities of corridor-gaming become the subject of the narrative. And then it just gives up on that plot completely, and says, “hey ho, but let’s carry on anyway”. You obey Tenenbaum, and Fontaine mocks you, but then nothing is done with this. I really love that despite the realisation that all your actions are controlled by the need for the game to progress – how you are the puppet of the developers’ whims – that you cannot help but continue do the same. I just wish the game had acknowledge this in any way at all, beyond saying, “ner ner”. How about bothering to do anything with Tenenbaum’s character, after the point where you stare at her through a window and can’t communicate with her for no reason? What was the message? Blindly following is a random act, and if you do it twice it’ll be ok? Huh? SOMETHING!
4) Something that bothered me from the beginning to the end was the brutality of your approach. Here’s this beautiful city, crafted by the greatest minds in the world: now go hit it with a spanner. While you can later on elegantly use your plasmids for tactical ballet, there’s never a point where it isn’t easier, and far more effective, to just pound everyone in the head with your wrench, while tapping F to heal.
5) I think this is my largest complaint. It reminds me a bit of Studio 60 where Sorkin’s script said, “We’re the funniest thing ever to have been on television”, and then proceeded to not be funny at all. This is a world created by geniuses, but the vast majority of people encountered (by their recordings, obviously) seemed to be pretty stupid to me. Indeed, beyond their having made scientific breakthroughs, there was no evidence of genius at all. Having a couple of museums and a nice garden to sit in isn’t really the pique of human achievement. Why wasn’t I wandering through the ruined remains of former astonishing greatness? Architecturally it was impressive, and they did a good line in red banners, but um… While those mini-ads for plasmids were obviously there for gags, they were pretty damned moronic. I can see an argument that says this is a commentary on those so arrogant that they believed themselves worthy of a utopian society only open to the very most intelligent. But that doesn’t really do it. They’d still at least demonstrate some smartness.
As an FPS, I think it falls short of Half-Life 2, which would be the ribbon to break. But it’s close, and in terms of level design, that’s a massive achievement. As a post-Looking Glass game, it doesn’t come close to offering what Deus Ex provided (and I don’t mean in terms of not being an RPG – I mean in terms of delivering on its narrative). And yes, you could create a list like the above for Deus Ex until the internet ran out of room, but I think you could create a pro-list that equally out-weighs. The only emotional moment for me was arriving in the room filled with the saved Little Sisters, thanking me and gossiping about how I would save them. I could only ever save them, because of who I am, and the game rewarded that with kindness. That was splendid. But it was one moment. So while huge amounts were enjoyable (most especially Cohen’s photography sequence), I never felt like I could betray, or trust, or manipulate. I was the puppet, and the game laughed at me for that, but then it just carried on laughing at me while it wandered to a rather vague conclusion. Oh, and if you’re going to have ten minute cutscenes throughout your game, have the ending last more than 30 seconds, and go into some credits, and not back to a screen declaring “Continue” like I wish it would have.