Friday, December 14, 2018

RetroDEX: The original "Bioshock" is absolute trash

What a garbage fire.

It's rare for me to come out of a gaming experience so angry and distraught I have to instantly jump in here and bitch about it; but Bioshock was just that experience for me. A bloated, pretentious mess that plays extremely clunky and outstays its welcome by several hours; also, a game everyone on the planet seems to love.

Sorry, fans, but I don't see it. From where I stand, Bioshock joins a long list of titles (not unlike Mass Effect) that only got as popular as they did, because they were doing something even remotely unique and/or artistic in the dreadfully generic first half of the 7th console generation. Put this game next to any other competent shooter and it doesn't hold a candle to any of them, both those that succeeded it and the ones that preceded it.

I hated almost every moment of the original Bioshock and, to make matters worse, this wasn't even my first time playing it. I've played the damn thing four times (though I've only finished it twice) and every time I just can't get past how bad the gameplay feels. From the jerky controls to how completely obtuse so many of the mechanics are, everything about it feels wrong.

Well, almost everything.

It's admittedly hard to not appreciate some of the finer points of and the intentions behind it. I hated it, because I had the displeasure of having to actually play it, but there's a lot of ambition that sometimes even pays off. The whole Ayn Rand political theme is certainly interesting. The characters, though far from engaging, are well-rounded thanks to the hours of exposition through the audio recordings. Same goes for Rapture itself; underwater cities aren't my thing, but a good amount of effort has gone into making this one feel both unique and familiar at the same time. It has exactly what you'd expect from a 1950s American Metropolis, only it's a lot more claustrophobic and unsettling. Considering the twist of the story in the last part of the game, the art direction deserves kudos.

The story itself also deserves some credit; I wouldn't call the game very well-written and its means of exposition (i.e. the tapes) end up being more of a bother, but there was clearly a lot of thought that went into deconstructing the ideal Objectivist society and, ultimately, strip humanity down not to political systems, but basic human decency and the difference between right and wrong. The stylish visuals, the various posters on the wall and their juxtaposition with the humanoid Splicers set the tone really well and they effectively communicate Rapture's decay throughout the entire game. The storytelling doesn't work very well in itself, but the attempt is certainly appreciated, especially considering Bioshock's contemporaries, particularly in the genre.

Also, as a spiritual successor to System Shock 2, the game deserves some credit for its sheer scope in terms of mechanics. Switching between conventional weapons and plasmids, using the right tonics, the progression system and so on; you can sneak up on some Splicers and wrench your way through part of the game, you can come up with combos, you can choose whether you want to tank the game or become a master hacker and have Rapture's technology do your work for you. All of these are good ideas-- in theory.

Now that I've appeased your potentially murderous instincts and you may still be reading instead of sharpening that machete intended for my luscious balls, let's get down to the nit and gritty of it.

In practice, none of the mechanics work as they're supposed to. Oh, where to even start? How about the janky gunplay? It feels floaty, the weapons have recoil but not any weight and accuracy is all over the place. Is there too much spread or pinpoint accuracy? Who knows? Just shoot and hope your bullets connect to something charging at you, instead of the nearby scenery.

Should we bring up the plasmids? Switching to them and using them is about as comfortable as going to work in a coal mine with a pair of nipple clamps attached underneath your three-weeks old sweat-soaked shirt. Oh the game wants to incentivise combos between certain plasmids and weapons, but there's at least one step too many every time you try them out, causing unnecessary delay that ultimately just defeats the purpose when you can just shoot the Splicers with some nice, reliable lead. Not that there are that many useful environmental uses for them; every level you enter will either have puddles of water for Electro Bolt or puddles of crude oil for Incinerate. Cut back on that variety a little, guys, my head's going to explode!

How about the three gazillion layers of mechanics that are intended to add depth to the game, but instead make the experience cumbersome? What's the point of the alternate ammo types? Armor-piercing rounds are useful against bots, but they barely make a difference against Big Daddies and why even have anti-personnel rounds, when almost all Splicer types deal and absorb roughly the same amount of damage? Outside of few areas where there are too many of them and you need to take them down fast, there's no reason to switch to this expensive, hard-to-find ammo type.

I find quite funny, in implementation, the pretense of a RPG element in the game. Upgrade your weapons! Upgrade your plasmids! Use ADAM to acquire new plasmids and tonics! Then slot them and see no discernible difference from before! I'm sure in terms of sheer numbers running behind the pretty levels, there is a difference, but the problem here is that Bioshock is neither System Shock 2 nor Deus Ex. I'm convinced part of the reason the gunplay is so terrible is because the game wants you to go through the necessary upgrades to improve it, but Bioshock is a straight-up shooter. It may not be DOOM, but when the action gets going, you need to respond fast and have the necessary tools and handicaps to get through battles. Some tonics feel completely useless, like there's no point in ever acquiring them; oh gee, I can one-wrench the unaware Splicers now; all three of them in the ENTIRE game (that's hyperbole, I know)! Not that the levels offer the necessary alternative paths for a stealth route. Many a plasmid feel the same; cool ideas Ken Levine (the creator of the series and lead designer) wanted to implement without finding much of a place for them in the actual game. On that note, whose bright idea was it to have different categories for the different tonics? Trim that shit down, don't make me look through menus to see what I can slot where. Pacing, Ken!

To put it simply, Bioshock is a bad shooter with underdeveloped RPG elements. Once the spoopy atmosphere has lost its novelty, you're left with obtuse mechanics and the game just isn't fun to play. It's absorbing in that you want to see more of Rapture and discover its (hi)story, but actually shooting at things isn't entertaining. The Splicers also lose a lot of their gravitas very early on and they become a bothersome obstacle the game just throws at you to keep you on your toes and it never feels like you're accomplishing anything by getting into countless encounters with them. The only time it ever feels like combat gets you actual, tangible rewards is when you're taking on the Big Daddies and that's only assuming they have a Little Sister to squeeze ADAM from with them. There's weird placements of turrets specifically to screw you over, getting hit (especially by the Big Daddies) incapacitates you and makes it hard to counter and if you ever needed an example of how much they didn't balance the combat in this game, you needn't look further than the Vita Chambers. This was my first time playing the game with them enabled and it occurred to me the only reason they exist is to help the player not be frustrated after getting repeatedly pummeled by a ton of shit they can't even see on-screen. They're a standard respawn mechanic, ripped straight out of a multiplayer shooter and incorporated into the game, because mechanics are lopsided against you.

Of course, all of this pales in comparison to the single mechanic in this game that brings my piss to a boiling point and that's the fucking hacking. I don't remember the last time I have seen a mechanic so dull, flow-breaking and, honestly, utterly fucking broken in a game as highly praised as this one.

It's fun at first; do a silly little pipe mini-game and get cameras and turrets on your side. Fine. But as the game progresses, these things become such a ridiculous bother. You want better prices on a vending machine? Hack it. Not one, but THREE of them (four, if you count the crafting stations), because one vending machine would be too casual for this gem of a hardcore gamer's game. You want to get rid of that camera in that tight spot? Hack it. You need those turrets on your side, because your pistol is still a peashooter at this point in the game? Hack it. Hack hack hack hack hack.

In a proper RPG with proper balancing, the various tonics would eliminate the need to spend so much time on this, but not in Bioshock; especially in early game, if you expect to be viable at combat and survival, you better get used to stopping the game dead in its tracks every fifteen seconds to fuck about with pipes. You can at least start ignoring (and outright destroying) some cameras and turrets in the later game, but even with all the proper tonics slotted, ammo still costs an arm and a leg (and you go through them very fast, because of the aforementioned issues with the combat), so you'll have to at least hack the vending machines.

This is game-breaking shit right there. To make matters worse, the hacking mini-game is entirely RNG. Oh, the number of times the game fucks you over with non-existent routes that force you to hit a short-circuit or an alarm tile. The patterns are randomly generated and the algorithm only seems to account for "difficulty" instead of "user-experience". This means A LOT of the patterns lead nowhere and you're forced to either take the hit or hit F9 (to quick load the last save). The related tonics don't alleviate the situation, as they make hacking easier, but the random patterns can (and will) still screw you over.

LOOK AT THIS SHIT. What am I supposed to do here?!

All of that to get to one of two shitty endings and of course the fucking game gave me the bad ending this time around. I didn't remember the exact conditions that separated the two endings, I just assumed you had to rescue more Little Sisters than those you harvest; but no, harvest any more than a SINGLE Little Sister and you're screwed. I'm not sure why; perhaps Levine was adamant about the stupid binary morality system in the game, but from my perspective, it seems like yet another attempt to avoid balancing the game out. There is a level of strategy in deciding how many Little Sisters to look for, then harvest or rescue, but if you go middle-of-the-road morality, you end up throwing the intended balance out the window, because you make the game too easy and we can't have that!

It works from a narrative standpoint; if you want the good ending, you'll have to try harder for it, damn it! Rapture fell, because it sought easy solutions to complex problems and lost its soul and sense of morality in the process. If you decide to be a good Jack, you'll bleed your way to the preferable ending.

Too bad this means that if you want to have fun in a fucking piece of entertainment software, you'll have to literally start killing little girls.

I hate this shit. I hate so much of this game. This pretentious, unpolished, slow, sluggish mess of "artistry" that barely has any business being called a game. For all its efforts at storytelling through visuals and world-building, Bioshock's gameplay seems to be an afterthought that exists almost separately from everything else. Even if it weren't the broken mechanics, then the simple level and objective designs drive that point home; there are four (FOUR!) separate occasions in this game where you have to "collect" or "destroy" a number of somethings to proceed. You can barely get away with doing this once in a shooter and Bioshock does it four times, breaking narrative flow for no other reason than padding.

And yet, there is something iconic and memorable about Rapture, its style and the game's (buggy, but impressive) sound design. It's always familiar and inspiring returning to it; I just wish the actual game played better than it does. I firmly believe it should've been a shorter game; the binary morality system holds the game hostage not just from a gameplay standpoint, but also from a narrative one. The final act, going after Fontaine and making the story about choice and about doing the right thing completely undermines and neuters all the complex and intriguing ideas surrounding Ryan and Rapture that were set up until that point. It really should've ended after Ryan killed himself; a power-hungry man, so certain of his convictions as a "free man", he will commit "suicide by cop" to prove it. It would leave the player with an unsettling feeling of uncertainty and questions regarding free will, particularly in regards to the larger context of societal conditioning and the social conventions of morality, instead of this piss-poor portrayal of basic themes regurgitated for a simpleton audience of teenagers, which for the rest of us feels like padding the game out for a couple of more hours for no good reason.

This was my fourth time playing Bioshock and I can tell with certainty that I've had my fill of the game for the rest of my life. I was hoping the Remastered version would've tweaked the game a little bit, but they didn't so much as polish as the controls, let alone fix the multiple issues with the mechanics. Perhaps, if the game gets remade 20 years down the line I'll give it another shot, but Bioshock shows its age. It's only fascinating that it's not its inherent problems that show its age, but its (waning) popularity. Bioshock was never a good game (in terms of actually being a game, playing like one), but it filled a woefully vacant spot at the time of its release and that propelled it to immense popularity and reverence. But in the pantheon of shooters that are simply entertaining to play, the first entry in this series falls short where it counts and while other shooters still hold up (from Half-Life and Halo to the "good" CoD titles), Bioshock does not.

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