Thursday, February 13, 2014


Last year "BioShock Infinite" crash-landed onto this planet, creating a tidal wave of universal praise and success.  While nearly every person loved the game without reservation at the time, I was well-ahead of the times and was forced to point out that despite fantastic presentation, well-rounded characters, and a very well-written storyline, the game was lacking in several respects.  Because I'm that awesome of a game critic.  It was basically nothing but a linear shooter, with very little customization, mindless repetitive gameplay, only two guns equippable at any time, and so much shooting that emptying a man's head of brains was as routine as brushing your teeth.  It was still a great title, but it was no classic.

The problem clearly was that I was not playing "BioShock", the Original Flavor, one of the best games of the last console generation*.  It might be clearly graphical inferior and considerably more lonely since you are going through this dystopian fantasy city without a beautiful princess, but it is superior in every other respect.  In the past console generation video game storylines and atmospheres have reach whole new levels of sophistication and creativity, to the point that it almost feels like gameplay is falling behind.  "BioShock" is one of those just incredible gaming worlds, an inexperience completely unforgettable, and unlike "Infinite", has actual depth and complexity beyond shooting racists with a shotgun.  You still get to shoot insane techno-zombies with a shotgun, but when not shooting people, other gameplay things happen.  Its bizarre that "BioShock" is an older game by six years, and yet feels far more advanced that its sequel, almost as if it was built specifically to fix my complaints with "".

The story, as I'm sure you know since the game is six years old, and I am roughly the last person on the planet to play it, is set in an underwater city called "Rapture".  Once a paradise for unlimited free market experimentation, an overdose of biological mutations and Ayn Rand novels have driven its populace insane.  After a plane crash, a faceless voiceless player character is trapped in the steampunk madhouse, and must shoot his way out to escape.  Along the way you must battle the leaders of this city, who are hardly more sane than the populace they control.  Rapture's obsession with genetic manipulation has created a small galaxy of "Plasmids", essentially magic spells you can use, which allow you to either electrocute your foes, set them fire, or any number of other effects.  Plasmids also ruin your face, are extremely addictive, and will drive you insane.  Just about every object in the game can be manipulated with a "hacking" minigame, that allows you to turn enemy robots to your side, or poison healing stations to murder foes who attempt to use them.  It is all a very varied and interesting gaming adventure, one of the very best to appear on our old PlayStation 3s and Xbox 360s.


Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy wound up getting a lot of airtime in the last few years as she was one of the very few intellectual voices who could be said to prop up the Tea Party's anti-government tirade.  Back when this blog actually tried to have a political element, I read "Atlas Shrugged", Rand's great fictional demonstration of the importance of Objectivism.  She postulated that the United States would drive itself into economic ruin by an overwhelming obsession with socialism.  Also her primary villains are some of the dumbest characters ever imagined, who would have driven any country to the ground even if they believed in capitalism.  Ultimately her solution to a world torn to pieces by false altruism, was for all the geniuses and productive members of society to lock themselves away within a hidden society run by the extremely sandy-haired handsome genius, John "Mary Sue" Galt.  That hidden world was called "Galt's Gulch"**, a perfect utopia without a government, and where every genius is allowed to express their creative powers forever.

Objectivism has some kind of internal logic - if only everybody worked hard for themselves, nothing would ever go wrong.  But much like communism, it really only could ever work in an ideal world where nobody would attempt to steal from others.  Add one guy with a gun stealing all my hard-made crops, now he's eating this winter, and I'm starving, no matter how much of a farming genius I might be.  It seems fitting therefore that to disprove Ayn Rand's dystopian novel, a dystopian video game had to be made, showing Objectivism logical conclusion:  a ruined civilization run by lunatics.  Heck, the final villain of this game turns out to be exactly the hypothetical thug that would destroy the Objectivist world.

Great slogan.

The Rapture of "BioShock" was created by a Russian refugee named Andrew Ryan.  "Andrew Ryan" is not quite an anagram for "Ayn Rand" but the effect is the same.  Ryan is Rand, in philosophy, and even in national origin.  This city was built to be an underwater Galt's Gulch, making literal the Atlantis metaphor used throughout "Atlas Shrugged" for its version Objectivist utopia.  Unfortunately for Ryan, there are no perfect supermen such as the novel heroes Dagny Taggart or Henry Rearden, and certainly no godlike figures such as John Galt, instead the city is run by greedy old-fashioned humans.  Ryan begins as a pure Objectivist, who burned down a forest on his estate to stop it from being turned into a national park through eminent domain.  He also dresses like Walt Disney for some reason or another.

Rapture at first was everything Galt's Gulch was meant to be, a marvel of engineering and construction, with incredibly advanced technology for the 1950s.  Unfortunately as time continued, some citizens attempted to steal control away from the town, and the advanced biological experiments took over the citizenry's minds.  With no sense of morality stopping him, Andrew Ryan turned his people into an army "Splicers", addicts to the genetic modifications.  Now Rapture is at the best of times a dank ghost town with no economy, and a crumbling infrastructure slowly getting retaken by the sea.  At the worst times it is a chaotic battlefield, as Splicers shoot at any stranger and are torn down by the city's defense systems.  For some reason every person down here, even the unspliced Andrew Ryan, are still delusional enough to think this doomed nightmare is worth conquering, and do not realize they are trapped within a dark oceanic hellscape.  On every level Rapture is genius lost within obsession and madness.

Your silent protagonist crashes into this city at the beginning.  With no help other than an Irish-accented voice over the radio who called himself "Atlas", you have no choice but to follow his advice, marching from location to location in Rapture, killing a major Splicer boss, and getting closer to taking down Andrew Ryan.  The game begins seeming to be a very straightforward battle against a ruthless city-founder, but in fact, the story takes very dark unpredictable twists and turns.  "A man chooses, a slave obeys." - Remember that, will you kindly?

Sorry, this screenshot isn't Rapture, its Camden, New Jersey.
Not that you'd be able to tell the difference, though.

The story of Rapture is told very fluidly both through the general advancement through "BioShock", but also thanks to the variety of Audio Logs you can find during the course of the game.  You get the sense of a city that once was great, but now has rapidly decayed and rusted into ruins.  The last sane people left were murdered years ago by Ryan or his splicers.  Now all that's left is automated machinery still running, moving parts that have never stopped carrying out their jobs even when their masters are either dead or too far gone to ever recover.  There is something so profoundly sad about air systems still running and various techno-creatures still patrolling the halls, when maybe a handful of people are sane enough to even care that they are still alive.  Its almost as sad as the mutated citizenry who use these systems to continue their endless war that you have unfortunately stumbled into.  Every wall, rotting furniture, and leaking bolt helps tell the story of Rapture.  This is gaming atmosphere and imagination at its finest.


"BioShock" is a first-person shooter.  I've heard claims that this is a "thinking man's shooter", which is probably nonsense.  If you want a thinking man's game, you play a turn based strategy game.  You play "BioShock" to make things explode.  You shoot things before they shoot you, that's about it.  Luckily though, the combat is fairly solid, at least as far as my very inexperience FPS instincts can tell, but "BioShock" is not merely a series of combat arenas linked together until the end credits, like other games have been.

In terms of pure combat, the game is nice enough to give a great deal of variety in its gun load-out and magical abilities.  You have up to eight weapons, usually normal FPS weapons like a revolver, a shotgun, a machine gun, a flamethrower, and a rocket launcher.  But there are plenty of varied kinds of ammunition and traps to be used.  For example, your shotgun can fire electric bullets, which are useful for killing mechanical enemies and the Big Daddies (more on them in a bit).  You can lay mines with the rocket launcher, or electric trip wire with your crossbow.  Using a Research Camera you can increase your damage output, allowing anti-personnel or armor-piercing rounds to tear right through their flesh.  For two-thirds of the game, resources are very slim, meaning that combat has to be strategic and thought-out in advance, otherwise you'll be left with nothing but a wrench to hit enemies over the head with.

I promised you a shotgun, didn't I?

However, the wrench is one of the better weapons in the game.  Because so many of your abilities and gene load-outs can be customized during the course of the game, you can basically choose to focus on any one weapon and make it your primary life-ender.  This not a full-on RPG, so it customization is not unlimited, but you can streamline your options to suit your play style.  Towards the end if you kill enough Bid Daddies, you will have collected enough resources to do just about everything.  I focused most of my power into my wrench, so that it could crush most enemies in a few hits, which is very useful for the later enemies who are very bullet-spongy.  You can also spend your ADAM, which is what the gene currency is known as, to boost your HP, increase your defense, gain stronger magical powers, and master hacking.

What I love about the combat in this game is that most of your Plasmid spells are unique and have interesting effects, unlike in "Infinite" where basically there were three spells but with many different names.  In this game electric magic can instantly kill an opponent standing in water, or burn an enemy standing on an oil slick, so the environment actually comes into play somewhat.  There are some Plasmids that can turn enemies against each other, allowing you to stand away and avoid combat.  An Ice attack will freeze up a foe, letting you kill them instantly, but they will not drop loot.  Or you can throw a plague of bees at them, which should scare them off for a little while.  The best spell in the game is Telekinesis, since Rapture is littered with explosive air tanks that will easily remove a crowd of opponents, and it can throw back grenades or rockets.  I will not call "BioShock" the world's most sophisticated shooter, but in so far as its a unique steampunk battlefield that rewards creativity and some level of strategy.

Getting ADAM is not easy though.  Andrew Ryan created an entire automated system for its creation and return, built around genetically engineered citizens to become his monsters.  Little Sisters are small mutated girls that wander the city collecting ADAM from corpses.  They are protected by huge rumbling bio-robots called "Big Daddies", these oddly-adorable monsters wearing diving bells that are the "BioShock" series icon (you can see one with his Little Sister on the cover of the game).  A Big Daddy fight is easily the toughest opponent in the game, surpassing most of the bosses - even the piss easy final boss.  Normally they'll leave you alone, but if you attack, their helmets glow red, and they will keep attacking until either they are taken down, or you're another corpse decorating the halls of Rapture.

"Mr. Bubbles, rip him!"

There are so many details about the Big Daddies and Little Sisters that I just love.  The Little Sisters affectionately call their protectors "Mr. Bubbles" or "Mr. B" for short, and recite cute little lines while they march across the halls.  The Big Daddies, despite being suits lined with the organs of some poor tortured bastard, seem to legitimately love their wards, and will defeat anything that attacks, no matter what gets in the way.  They also make whale noises for... reasons.  You can dodge away the Bouncer-type Big Daddies by dancing away, leading them right into mines or a swift electric shotgun blast to the back.  The Rosies (featured above) have a gun, and are far more dangerous.  At early levels, you will take several deaths to actually kill off a Big Daddy, unless you play really well, but towards the end, once you've collected enough spells and advanced weaponry, beating them is a simple prospect.  When you kill Mr. Bubbles, the Little Sister will be left crying over their friend until you finally harvest her for her ADAM.  The saddest part about this whole ADAM economy is that its continuing to run even after Rapture has already fallen to pieces.  The Big Daddies are serving nobody at the moment, they are just goldmines for you pillage.

"BioShock" includes a lame moral choice system where you have to choose between killing a Little Sister for 160 ADAM, or returning her to normal humanity for 60 ADAM.  However, if you save two Little Sisters, they'll give you a teddy bear full of weapons and an extra 200 ADAM, so it all adds up to being equal anyway.  There is no reason to murder the little girls unless you're a psychopath.  You also get multiple endings, if you harvest Little Sisters you become the Dark Lord Hitler von Satan, and if you save them you get an ending so sappy and positive that you'll be shitting sugar crystals for a week.

And here's something "BioShock" has that "Infinite" did not have:  exploration!  The game moves on a linear sequence of levels, but levels are usually far more complex than simply walking from beginning to end.  They make large dungeons that usually require backtracking, crafting, and exploration in order to find every piece of loot, ammo, and ultimately find every item needed to continue.  You can get lost looking for secrets and enjoying the world around you.


My last few weeks of my life have been a wild love affair with this disc spinning inside my PlayStation 3.  When I sleep, I dream of fighting Big Daddies and walking through the halls of Rapture.  I mutter Little Sister quotes under my breath at work.  I thought my copy of "Atlas Shrugged" was a Splicer and I set it on fire the other night.  This is the kind of true love that can only happen between a man and a video game he loves without question.

To make some complaints:  the hacking minigame was clearly made with PC in mind, and on consoles runs too quickly for you to plan ahead.  The final third of the game goes on for slightly too long, there really are not any new characters to find, and only more rusted hallways filled with lunatics.  And the final boss is so goddamn easy as to be embarrassing.  At least there is a Final Boss***.  Occasionally there are a few glitches, for example, I once was beaten by a Big Daddy, and came back to fight him again, only to see him explode and drop dead for no reason.  Then there's a common problem where randomly after death you will use the final attack you put in just before your hero ran out of life, so you'll respawn and waste a magical attack or an electric shotgun round for no reason.  But these are minor issues, every game has them.

"BioShock" is more than the sum of the parts you can quantify.  It might be several years old, coming from the early days of the last generation, but it feels as fresh and alive as any other video game classic.  And a classic this is.  If you need dopamine to flush through your neurological system, this is the best kind of delivery system.

Too bad Ayn Rand died decades before Ken Levine could release this game, I would have loved to see the look on her face.

* Perhaps the best - its primary competition is "Super Mario Galaxy", "Super Smash Bros Brawl", "The Last of Us", and "Batman: Arkham City" for that fabled place in my heart.

** "Galt's Gulch" may be the ugliest combination of phonemes in the history of language.  Just try saying that out-loud.  Your tongue will tie itself in a knot out of disgust that you would ever make it express such an awful sound.

*** Sorry, Ken Levine, but even a year later I'm still pissed that you could not fight the Songbird in "BioShock Infinite".


  1. So how did you beat the final boss? What I did was spray him with electric gel from my chemical thrower. It stun-locked him for 80% of the fight until I ran out of gel and had to finish him off with old-fashioned bullets.

  2. Circle strafing. Telekensis his attacks back at him if he cornered you. Super easy.

  3. Good ol' Bioshock. I've got to say this takes a place as one of my favorite video games of all time. Not just because it's a great game with great gameplay, but because it sets up such a great atmosphere and world lore. This world is the kinda world that anything can happen and it would still fit in.

  4. And six years later, I have yet to play a game with a better atmosphere than Bioshock (I thought Dishonored had an amazing setting but even that is a very very distant second). Honestly, it's hard to see anything surpassing it. Just an amazing game.