Thursday, August 23, 2007

Byte: BioCrock

Good old Play.com. When I got home from work today I found my copy of BioShock waiting for me behind the door. As you might expect, I rushed off to install it and start playing, being pleasantly surprised that the authentication servers for the UK were already up and running, but mildly annoyed that the install takes a good fifteen or twenty minutes. And I'm hardly running on an abacus here...

After it (finally) installed, I spent a couple of hours getting into the game. It's at this point I should say that the post title is a little disingenuous. It's not a crock. Not by any means. In fact, it's easily one of the best games I've played since Half-Life 2. But there are a few things that are irking me - and since you're unlikely to read about these things in a magazine or website review, I feel duty-bound as an increasingly infrequent freelance games journalist to tell you about them... and I admit, I chose the post title just to annoy all the BioShock-lovers at Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

Annoyance Number 1: Genetic Engineering is no problem, but they can't invent a decent light bulb - what is it with modern sci-fi FPS games and darkness? I'm sure I've missed picking up a lot of items and ammo, simply because the game is too goddamned dark. Not only that, but the Thief 3-style "loot glint" often doesn't work beyond a distance of a couple of in-game feet, rendering it somewhat impotent, if not quite entirely useless.

Annoyance Number 2: Corpses should not be giving me a Royal Wave for five minutes - the physics in the game appears to be highly suspect. Waving corpses are just the start. Objects flying into the air when you walk into them, weapons falling out of people's dead hands and flying unrealistically across the room... not quite on a par with the randomness of Soldner or Boiling Point, but still eyebrow-raising stuff.

Annoyance Number 3: Hacking computers is NOTHING like playing Pipemania - except in BioShock. I don't know whose idea this was, to turn hacking into a Pipemania mini-game, but they need kneecapping. Pipemania is RUBBISH. Even worse, it's not even skill related. From what I've seen so far, the tiles on each specific hackable object (be it a turret or a vending machine) are fixed - they're not randomised between attempts, which while it makes sense if you're using the pipes to represent electric circuits, completely render the whole puzzle element superfluous thanks to your ability to quicksave and reload.

Annoyance Number 4: You are effectively immortal - the whole point of playing an FPS is to get a thrill from balancing your need for an adrenalin fix with your vulnerability as a game character. The resurrection pods in BioShock, however, eliminate this balance, because death has no more a consequence than in an MMORPG like World of Warcraft. The only thing you lose is the time take retracing your steps from the Vita-Chambers to the place where you died. It almost defeats the entire object of an FPS game - even more so than a quicksave/reload - and eliminates any illusion of tension and risk. A very curious design choice, and not one I would have made.

Annoyance Number 5: System Shock 2 respawns - what has it been? Eight, nine years? Yet still Irrational are giving us infinitely respawning enemies. Admittedly, here it's been implemented with a whole lot more subtlety, but I still had one encounter where I was looting medical supplies and tonics from a dentist's surgery and I turned around to find a splicer standing in the space I'd occupied not three seconds beforehand. And you could tell he had just spawned, because the AI routines hadn't kicked in yet - even though he was no more than two feet away and staring directly at me, I still managed to shoot him in the face with a shotgun before the AI algorithm had decided what it was going to do.

Annoyance Number 6: You create an intellectual meritocratic society, but you fail to ban guns - Suspension. Of. Disbelief. Crumbling. Seriously. Vending machines where you can buy ammunition. That's just a disaster waiting to happen, surely.

None of these gripes are deal-breakers, but still, they are annoying considering how good the rest of the game is. I don't want to give out spoilers, so I'm trying to be careful about what I say about the game - but so far, I'm really impressed. The game does a great job of setting the scene initially. The reveal of Rapture in the bathysphere is nothing short of breathtaking, and your first encounter with a Little Sister and Big Daddy is stupendously cool. They've also put a phenomenal amount of effort into the water effects. Stand under a stream of falling water and you'll see what I mean. The light and image distortion effects are absolutely brilliant. In fact, the whole design aesthetic is amazing.

Based on my initial impressions, this is definitely Game of the Year material (WoW: Burning Crusade not withstanding) - I'm not sure it's a 95% or 10/10 game; yet. A 9/10 game, certainly. Time will tell whether it's got the potential to surpass Deus Ex in my affections as an FPS/RPG hybrid. Still, I'm looking forward to playing it more and finding out. But that can wait until the morning.

"I'm ready for dream-time, Mr. Bubbles..."
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