Performance Review – BioShock: A Shooter on the 360?!

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Wow. People sure seem to be in a tizzy about this game BioShock, huh? I hadn’t even been following it too closely. Know why? Because conversations about it started with that dread phrase “first-person shooter.” Now, I’m not a die-hard FPS fan. Not by a long shot. The last time I played and truly enjoyed a FPS was Perfect Dark for the N64. That game was uglier than sin, but I could control it, use some neat weapons, and have some simple deathmatches with friends. I tried playing other FPSes in the interim, such as Counterstrike. Boy. That was a mistake. Anyone that had not been playing that game since the millisecond it came out was doomed to being headshot five seconds into every match. Not to mention I could never, ever get used to the controls. I don’t think humans were MEANT to use keyboard and mouse controls. I think a subset of humanity gradually adapted to it and one day they will become their own sovereign species, climbing out of their PC cafes at night to pwn our children. It’s a scary thought.

I’ve gradually gotten back into the shooter genre with the very excellent Resident Evil 4 (if you think that game’s survival horror anymore, you’re dumb) and the pretty darn nice Gays Gears of War, which was pretty much a RE4 mod. Both games changed the perspective to third-person and featured lots of set pieces to punctuate the grinding task of making hordes and hordes of whatever fall to their knees through brute firepower. Drunk off my success with these two games, I decided to give the seminal Half-Life 2 a try. After all, everyone loves it and it was only $5 for the Xbox. At first I loved it for its innovative use of cutscenes, but eventually I grew quite tired of it after it turned into an actual FPS and the gameplay seemed to stall. Conferring with Film Walrus on this seemed to corroborate the fact that Half-Life 2 had long, dull stretches where all you did was duck and cover from enemy fire and return it back to them. And I guess I was still pretty damn far from getting the gravity gun. From where I hear the game goes into a coma yet again. Damn.

So all this brings me to BioShock, whose demo landed in the Xbox Marketplace at a plump 1.3 GB this week. Skeptical and wanting to hate it SO SO badly, I let my Elite download it while off and I entertained myself with non-FPS pursuits in the meantime. Finally, it was done! Worth the final purchase?

y halo thar

HA, YOU THOUGHT I’D TELL YOU RIGHT AWAY.

First, let me talk about the most important part of a FPS: the story. In the demo, you start out as some shifty character on a ship or something in the year 1960, when something explodes or something (I don’t remember it as being clear) and the screen fades out, landing you in the middle of a burning wreckage floundering for your life. Once you get on dry land (in the middle of what was presumably the ocean?!) you find yourself in a foyer and series of hallways that seem to lead your forward, to a bathysphere. Once, inside, you’re introduced to the wonderful submerged city of tomorrow, Rapture, run by the Big Brother-meets-Howard Hughes character of Andrew Ryan. It seems a wonderful fantasyland at first glance, but once the bathysphere reaches its destination, you discover that the inhabitants of Rapture have gone mad due to Ryan’s Plasmid genetic enchancements. You find a short-wave radio that lets you communicate with one of the few sane residents left as he tries to guide the both of you to safety.

It’s a pretty nifty story, with a unique-ish setting. There was a Hughes/Disney-ish entrepreneur trying to create a perfect underwater society in “Deep Freeze,” an episode from Batman: The Animated Series. What really seems to set this game apart, however, is its atmosphere and storytelling. The graphics in the game are, without a doubt, gorgeous. Some of the best on the Xbox 360. I was more than impressed with the amount of detail there was to the world, and how real it all looked. A lot of early Xbox 360 games had the same fake-looking graphics, just shinier. Not here. It’s real step up, like Gays Gears of War was. The sound is also spot-on with crystal clear Dolby Digital sound that makes good use of surround channels to relay important information about who’s sneaking up on you from where. The storytelling also takes a huge page from the Half-Life playbook by putting all its cutscenes in real time, with you able to move and look around throughout them. It keeps the player from being pushed out of the experience and allows for a much more cinematic level of tension. Speaking of cinematic, I can tell from the bathysphere ride that there’s some frustrated Hollywood dreams being let out of the box on that development team.

But how about the gameplay? The unique aspects to it are foremost your Plasmid powers. Working like magic in a RPG, you can shoot out lightning or fire from your left hand in the demo. It’s useful to stun or incinerate enemies with, but I found it harder to aim than a regular gun. Also, it seems to run out REALLY fast. Of course there’s going to be way more Plasmid powers in the final game, but since that’s all there was in the demo, that’s all I can report on. Oh, neat thing: you can electrocute enemies if they’re standing in puddles of water! I also hear there’s more complicated parts to the character growth in the final game, utilizing genetic enhancements to augment skills in different areas. A neat RPG-ish element, but I’d have to see how it was implemented.

Now the conventional weaponry. All I could find in the demo was a wrench (i.e. Half-Life‘s crowbar) and a revolver that only had six bullets. So I just wrench’d nasties. Nothing overwhelming to report on that front yet.

Apparently you can hack into certain machines in the game. I tried it with an automated turret, but the rules were confusing and I ended up short-circuiting it and hurting myself. I have no idea what is going on with this part of the game. Care to explain, anyone?

A part I definitely didn’t like in the game that it shared in design with Half-Life 2 is that it’s often confusing to tell where to go. There’s no clear path, and it’s often dark. At the end, during the big alarm-sounding brawl, I was panicking trying to find a way to go and couldn’t figure out where it was. Very frutstrating and off-putting, in my opinion. A good game should herd you to where it wants you to go automatically.

Something I LIKED about the experience, though, were some of the set pieces, like when the connecting tunnels are breaking and flooding. It felt very natural and immersive and exciting. The game needs a lot more moments like that. And that’s where the game leaves me. It needs more moments like that, more moments that make it stand apart from the pack. It can throw me all the gimmicks it wants to in the weapons department, but all I’m really doing at the end of the day is killing enemies over and over again. Part of what made Gays Gears of War and Resident Evil 4 so fun and exciting was the constant unveiling of some new set piece for you to toy around with. The El Gigante in RE4, the Berserker in Gays Gears of War… they made the games stand out, certainly. The jury’s out from me on whether or not BioShock is going to be a good game. If it keeps the experience short and thrill-packed, I think it’ll definitely be worth your attention and mine. If it’s just 30 hours of finding new ways to carve up the loonies in Rapture… thanks but no thanks.

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17 Responses to “Performance Review – BioShock: A Shooter on the 360?!”

  1. sirtmagus Says:

    I dunno who you talk about Half-Life 2 with but man. You guys are playing a different game. You talk about set pieces and shaking up the experience, Half-Life 2 is all about that. It’s Children of Men in video game form, dude. I dunno how to convince you besides listing off all the events you go through but they would just sound boring to you and you’d be entirely unconvinced.

    I could mention how you zoom through canals escaping helicopters, scale cliffs while dodging giant insects, taking CONTROL of those giant insects, massing an assault against faceless forces, firing laser-guided missiles at alien aircraft, command squads of soldiers, defend yourself in a prison… And yeah, you shoot guys over and over – that’s kinda what you do in these games – but you also solve simple puzzles and blast shit with the Gravity Gun. It’s a fucking great experience, and a quick one.

    Counterstrike, I’ll give you that. That game’s deceptively complicated for just shootin’ dudes in the head. There are also two versions of the game – 1.6 and Source. Purists prefer 1.6 because Source’s hit boxes are messed up, i.e., you can shoot someone’s head even though your aim was off. So, it’s kind of broken. The last time I played 1.6 I pwned fools left and right but that was months ago. It’s highly reflect-based and highly difficult but fun to play with pals. This goes for any multiplayer shooter, really. Fun to play with friends, impossible to play with strangers.

    Bioshock looks like it could be great but I agree, it’s frustrating not knowing where to go. However, just listening to the Irish guy tell me to go “To medical” and then looking, and noticing the “medical” sign by the hallway and then going down that hallway wasn’t too difficult.

    Hacking also takes some getting used to. Basically you’re just uncovering panels and then swapping out parts to connect them to the other side. It’s simple and should only take more than one try. After that, it’s easy as pie.

    Also sounds like you missed a machine gun. Which is okay, apparently this game is so wide and open-ended it’s possible to miss out on some parts. My first time through the demo I completely missed the Fire power. Now, I know where to get it.

    I think the game has a lot of potential for greatness. The sound design is impeccable. The graphics, stellar. The atmosphere? Holy shit. And those preview movies? Jesus Christ, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a first-person fight scene like that before. Bloody and creepy and awesome. And full of BEES. THE PAIN!!!!

    Another thing, Kotaku recently reported shooters on the 360 are actually the minority. Sports games dominate the library. =\

    And I think Bioshock, at least from what I’ve seen and played, subscribes more to the Metroid Prime/Deus Ex style of play – the first person adventure – more of an exploration type of play rather than simply moving from corridor to corridor gunning down fools. I took my time through the demo just exploring every nook and cranny, looking out windows to admire Rapture’s design, and picking up some items like Health Aids and WHISKEY that I never would have found if I just blasted my through.

    And set pieces are still the best thing about Twilight Princess. =P

  2. johnmora Says:

    I will contest you about the escort mission and jousting until my dying days.

    “It’s Children of Men in video game form, dude.”

    It was. Until you got a gun.

    “It’s a fucking great experience, and a quick one.”

    Quick? I’m like four hours into the game and I’m not even halfway through. I don’t even have the gravity gun yet. I’m at the boat part. Forever.

  3. james Says:

    One of the skills you can upgrade is your hacking skills. I’m assuming they start you with a low hacking skill, so trying to hack at your level is probably fairly difficult compared to if you spent points upgrading it.

    Of course, to upgrade stuff the most you have to kill little “girls”. Whee!

  4. Toaster 218 Says:

    Dammit John, just force yourself to continue playing Half Life 2. It’s an extremely memorable and enjoyable first-person ADVENTURE. And you’ll get the gravity gun once you finish that boat part you loathe so much. But I thought you were sick of all those boring first-person shooter segments.

    You’re talking in cirlces man.

  5. Ryner Says:

    “A good game should herd you to where it wants you to go automatically.”

    What would be the point of that? Hell, why not just make it a rail shooter in that case? Hurray new Resident Evil!

    And what the hell was so hard about figuring out where to go when the alarm started sounding? You go to the only fucking place that isn’t blocked off, that’s where you go. The demo was very linear, but apparently the full game will be more open ended in the path you can take to a destination.

    It sounds like you want an flashing sign to appear on screen and say “This fucking way, John, this fucking way”. You get a map, and the game tells you what to do if you lull for too long, what else could you ask for?

    Also, I’m not sure how you missed the machine gun, since there are two in the demo, and you have to walk over one of the them. Maybe you set your screen too dark at the start?

  6. Marc M Says:

    Half-Life 2 is one of those games I can play through again and again and I enjoy it every time. I never even notice how much time I’ve spent playing it.

    That’s all I have to say.

  7. johnmora Says:

    The game should make it clear where you need to go WITHOUT being on rails or having flashing signs (hi, Perfect Dark Zero!). At that part I was talking about, I DID try to run around to the exit, but I wound up only going in circles. It wasn’t clear to me at all where to go.

  8. KJ Says:

    Now THIS is a grump.

  9. johnmora Says:

    Why, thank you! >:3

  10. KJ Says:

    Tonight I had a big dinner. It was delicious, but it was BIG. HORRIBLY big. It was definitely too much of a good thing, and I was sick of it halfway through. I finished it, though, because there are starving children in Africa.

    I feel the way I do about Half-Life 2 as I do about my dinner. The game is amazing in the way that each mechanic introduces a whole new level of strategy and interactivity. The gravity gun, the buggy, the bug bait, the squad command.

    But when you get the buggy in that game, mowing down bugs and having unlimited ammo is awesome at first, but after an hour I started wondering how many more abandoned houses I’d have to ransack in order to get to a new environment. The feeling goes on for when I have to evade ant lions, and when I have to go up and down dilapidated apartment buildings, etc.

    The gravity gun is always awesome, though. I never get tired of bisecting dudes with buzzsaws.

    But anyway, all the problems you seem to have with FPS games are pretty much the problems I have with RPGs – when cool things happen, they’re really cool, but there aren’t enough cool things happening. “I have to destroy the gods, but first I need to get a magical orb and fight this smallish troll.”

    As for getting lost in FPS games, it’s getting to be less and less of a problem as technology improves and the level of detail in environments increase. At least you never played GAYLO.

  11. johnmora Says:

    I did. I like to call it by its development title, which was IDENTICAL GREEN HILLS.

  12. james Says:

    Again, a sign you never really played Halo. There’s like one level with green hills. If you had bothered with it, you’d make fun of the numerous identical halls or the library, both of which encompass MULTIPLE levels.

    I still love Halo.

    Oh, and Bioshock is currently running at a 97 on Metacritic, meaning people are considering it one of the greatest games of all time.

  13. johnmora Says:

    I PLAYED HALO. THE LEVEL WITH HILLS WENT ON FOREVER AND WE GOT LOST :(

  14. Loki Says:

    I played the Bioshock demo. I had a lot of fun. I think I will like (maybe love) the game. I’m kinda surprised you got lost, Mora.

  15. Perversion Says:

    I got lost when the alarm sounded, too. I was supposed to find the guy on the radio’s family or something, and somehow, after stumbling around for close to 15 minutes, I managed to find a medical lab. Then the demo ended. I didn’t know if I “won” or “lost.” I’m pretty sure I didn’t find the family.

  16. Film Walrus Says:

    I don’t know how I missed this when I first read this post, but I feel you are twisting my words around a little bit again. I’d like to mention that Halflife 2 currently sits on my #3 spot for all-time greatest game and though I do feel non-FPS players will be annoyed by the stretches of minorly-varied weapons-fire exchanges in fairly-long levels, I don’t think I called these stretches dull. I, for one, thought they were brilliantly arranged and offered plenty of nuance, challenge and decision making while still subtly directing you ever forward. I think the scope and epic set design really added to the game. The gravity gun is just absolutely amazing and there are plenty of other design elements that made this more than just duck-and-return gameplay.

    As for BioShock, it sounds to me like the buzz was vindicated and the critical reviews have been universally positive. I’m especially excited about the comparisons to System Shock 2 and Deus Ex, two of favorite FPSs. However, this breed of shooter is not about guns-blazing twitch-gaming and I can understand why that might throw peope off. I think you could come to appreciate ammo conservation, avoiding enemy encounters and treating your gun like only one tool in your kit.

    I intend to buy BioShock off of Steam and I’ll let you know more of my thoughts then. In the mean time, do you intend to review the full version? Also, I’d be interested in your final thoughts on Half Life 2 post-completion.

  17. John Mora Says:

    I’ll get both this and Orange Box once I have less on my plate and the games come down in price. Orange Box is just TOO MUCH GAME to go out and frivolously buy.

    To be fair, I played the demo again during a slow Saturday afternoon. And still managed to get a bit turned around. I’m not a fan of FPS games by nature, but I endeavor to broaden my horizons.

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