Sunday 31 January 2010

Review: Bioshock

The last ten years have been eventful for Team Soho, but probably not in the way they expected or wanted. The Getaway was delayed eighteen months from the original release date intended to coincide with the release of the Playstation 2 launch, and the technology originally envisaged for the sequel ended being co-opted and released as Playstation Station Home. And then there's Bioshock, caught between the two like a fly in amber.

Widely lauded as the game of 2007, Bioshock is a fluid puzzle game where you have to expose pipe sections then switch them around to redirect an slowing streaming flow of liquid to the exit. It is important to say I've only played the first few levels of this game and I'm looking forward to more sophisticated variations featuring multiple coloured fluids, and criss crossing sections of pipe. The reason I've only been able to get to a few levels is the same reason that few people take advantage of the Playstation Home interface: navigating the game lobby is inconvenient and would be much better replaced by a simple menu system.

That's not to denigrate the design or tech behind these lobbies: you can see why Sony saw fit to make this system the centre piece of this generation of console technology. Much like The Getaway modeled the city of London, here the ambition has been scaled upwards to feature a whole country - reading between the lines it is clearly New Zealand. The opening area, called Rapture, is inspired by the city of Napier-Hastings, which following an earthquake and fire in 1931 was rebuilt in an Art Deco style.

At some point though, the Unreal engine suffers a little as it is re purposed for a multi-user lobby system. The draw distances suffer, with little effort going on the landscape outside the windows except for a watery looking distance fog, and the continuous game world of the Getaway replaced by separately loading areas.

Inevitably human nature is the biggest flaw in this game: all of the areas I've been to so far have been filled with griefers. You hear them lolcatzing before you see them, and they are dressed like the masked and bondaged rejects of Second Life: which with the dayglo neon sheen of the environments gives the whole place the tawdry feel of a sex club. Worse still, the remnants of the Getaway's unsatisfactory first person shooter code still exist in the lobby system - hampered by the poor walking speed of your avatar and the fact the environment design restricts the combat distance between you and your opponents to approximately ten feet. Since ammunition for the two weapons I've managed to find is so limited, I've had to resort to hitting them repeatedly in the head with an over sized nipple clamp that I appear to have picked up at some point. There's no strategy to this as you cannot block with this weapon, so you're forced to merely watch the increasingly blood spattered fantasy gimp outfit of what in reality must be some overweight thirty something American trying to click the mouse button faster than you.

I'm convinced some of the devs must have been moonlighting to make the lobbies more interactive, but it is so frustratingly incomplete. Picking up one of the tape recorded messages would start to play recorded dialog explaining the history of the place in every other first person shooter in existence, but not here. And there's some kind of magic system that helps you against the griefers, but you have to stare at their feet to figure out whether they're standing oil or water to decide which ability to use, instead of going for the head shot which you'd intuitively choose. Ideally there'd be well balanced integration between the main game - which you access by going up to one of the elabourate arcade cabinets and pressing v - and the lobby meta-game: see Paradroid for a beautiful example of how to implement this.

I hope the developers respond to some of the criticism they must have inevitably received in the follow up Bioshock 2. I'm convinced your avatar's slow walking speed - my personal peeve - will be addressed as the second game features a protagonist called Big Daddy; his impressive height must justify an increase in pace.

1 comment:

The Mad Tinkerer said...

All kidding aside, it took me a while to realize this, but this thought occurred to me on the second time I played through the game: The hacking minigame is actually a metaphor for fighting Big Daddies.

The hacking puzzle minigame actually prepares you mentally for taking on the tougher Big Daddies later in the game when you have a ton of different gadgets which individually don't do much. Instead of blowing BDs up with A Really Big Weapon, you set traps along the "flow" of where you want the BDs to go and manipulate their movement long enough to take them down for good. Sometimes the fluid is flowing slow enough for you to take your time and sometimesarghnowit'sgoingtoofastwhere'sthepeiceIneed!?! Just like fighting BDs.

Then again, at times Bioshock did feel quite a bit exactly as you describe it. ;)