August 31st, 2007

monkey pirate

Bioshock

There was quite a bit of controversy, and almost univeral positive reviews for "Bioshock". So, I picked it up. It's a story-based FPS with a lot of the tropes you've come to associate with the genre: powerups for your weapons, items you pick up that boost your abilities. What's novel about the game is only mildly so, but it is admirably embroiled up in the story, so I give 'em points for a good effort. The story revolves around a fellow by the name of Ryan, who back in the 40's took the writings of Ayn Rand just a little bit too much to heart, and disappeared into an undersea community with the best and the brightest, where they would be free of the "parasites" (that's you and me, by the way) and oppression of common morality and religion.

As you might imagine, this doesn't go very well. If (as Rand suggests) you found a society on all privilege being totally hunkey-dorey, on punishing the misfortunate for the misfortune of being misfortunate, on the gloriousness of greed, on the virtue of mercilessness...well, unsurprisingly you end up with a vicious mess. In this case, a vicious mess made worse by extreme tampering with human genetics. It is into this once-beautiful but now objectivist-gone-mad (or rather, more mad) paradise, called "Rapture" that you descend. The irony of it being a descent is not lost on me, I assure you. The environment is gorgeous, with a beautifully creepy combination of delapidated splendor, haunting music, and impressive design. A great deal of time and attention was paid to the aesthetics of Rapture, and it was time well spent. Quickly you discover that the genetic tinkering was with a substance called ADAM, which permits the user to ehance himself with "plasmids". Plasmids are basically magic powers with a quasi-science wrapper. Powering the whole thing like a batter is EVE. So, an analogy - ADAM is the motor, and EVE is the gas. Plasmids are the transmission. There are lots of differnet plasmids you can use, from projecting lightning bolts, to telekinesis, to tinkering with security systems. Apparently the folks of Rapture were deeply concerned with hurting each other, because there are cheerful illustrations and vending machines for all these genetic weapons scattered everywhere. None of the plasmids do anything constructive, though - like say, healing, giving wicked orgasms, making money rain from the sky - you know, the kind of stuff that would be actually useful for creating a utopia. Anyway, it's a given that you'll jab any hypodermic needle you find right into your wrist - and I mean, wouldn't you? "Hey look, a delapidated objectivist nightmare gone even more nightmarishly awry due to tinkering with genetics - I think I'll mainline any damn substance I find lying around on the ground!"

All the while, you come across the audio diaries of various characters that stitch together the fall of Rapture, as well as increasingly more maniacal radio transmissions from Ryan himself, who rattles on about parasites in a fashion that would make him a fine contender alongside any of the current Republican presidential candidates. Well no, wait, he's an avowed atheist, and probably does believe in evolution - so that makes him disqualified on the face of it. Well anyway, he has the mean spirit, obsession with keeping the poor down, and singular focus on his own power, as well as cheerful corruption that would at least make him a great VP. I haven't finished the game yet, but I am really looking forward to blasting him to smithereens. Even better if I could hack the game to insert the faces of various folks... ah, but anyway, Ryan is voice-acted in an almost note-perfect impression of Orson Welles, by way of Atlas Shrugged. He's a great villain, and his "perfect society" and its perfect collapse are a very creepy setting for the game.

Controversy comes in how one goes about harvesting ADAM. You have to get it from little girls. See, kids are parasites, according to Ryan. They don't produce anything, what good are they? So they tinkered with them and turned little girls into ADAM gathering ghouls with massive hypodermics who suck up genetic material from the dead. (Or just particularly still.) They are protected by steampunk nighmtmares called "Big Daddys" - gigantic dudes in old-timey diving suits with weapons grafted on to their limbs. The Big Daddys are insanely tough, hit like a ton of bricks, and move faster than a Republican candidate in a men's bathroom stall. You can't get to the Little Sisters until you wax the Big Daddy - so you know, conundrum. Adding to the moral turpitude - once you've captured the Little Sister (while she sobs over the corpose of her friend and protector that you just killed) you have to choose to "harvest" her or release her. Naturally releasing her entails getting substantially less ADAM, which makes the rest of your job a lot harder - whereas harvesting her (and never mind the writhing and the screams - she might have been a parasite before, but she's not even human now!) nets you a lot more ADAM. So yeah, everything in the game is powered by juice that can only be extracted from little girls. Controversy? Nah...

Gameplay is solid but not standout. You get guns. You get magic powers by abducting little girls. You use the guns and powers to blast baddies. Oh, and don't worry about innocents, they're all baddies now. Or they're dead. Or you harvest them. The maps are laid out so that it's hard to miss where to go next, though the mapping function is excreable; on those occasions when I've wanted to find something on the map, I couldn't make heads or tails of it - it's more convoluted than a gay Republican's self-justification. The missions are what you expect - go here and trip that lever, gather this many things, kill that guy, help this madman complete his murderous masterpiece sculpture. You know, par for the course. You can invent new upgrades for your guns, you can do a hacking mini-game where you turn robots to your side, stuff like that. It's all fairly fun, but does get redundant after a while. The deeper into Rapture you go, the more the plot is revealed (of course).

I'm enjoying Bioshock, but in my opinion it's what *every* $60 game should be; engaging, visually appealing, with a good story. It's not revolutionary, but it is evolutionary, and well-crafted. That this is getting hailed as the greatest thing since Lithuanian clown porn just goes to show how infrequently really good games come out.
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