For the purposes of this review I’m going to break the content in to three sections, the first is technological focusing on the code behind the game’s visuals and sound, the second component will be mechanical discussing the gameplay elements, and the final component will be artistic and wrapped up with a summary concluding my thoughts on the work. Given BioShock’s legacy and the importance people may place on the story that way you can skip the last portion if you’re afraid of spoilers (anything mentioned up until now can be gleaned from trailers so no need to apologize yet).
Due to its setting they went with a stylized design that gave them maximum flexibility. There are far more realistic looking games even using the same engine but the fluidity and lighting effects would probably not have been possible if they had striven for that degree of visual detail. The use of diffuse lighting, haze and the prudent use of bloom create a stunning and smooth running experience. The water and lighting techniques are stunning compared to the first BioShock which in comparison looks flat but between platforms you can see truly see the differences, the lack of aliasing on the Xbox 360 made for a “jaggy” experience which is to be expected, the PlayStation 3 while better for the “jaggies” and has a more realistic lighting experience than the 360 neither can hold a candle to the atmospheric quality of the PC. That all being said, it is an amazing experience on any platform, all three are visually compelling and hold their own. With no multiplayer component it’s a safe bet to purchase this for your favourite platform of choice.
The only real problem I found is one of accuracy, being primarily a PC gamer I’m used to the mouse and keyboard accuracy but even compared to other FPS games on the consoles BioShock has always been “drifty” and that’s still the case here, if you value accuracy not play on the consoles. That being said the “snap aim” feature that’s a mainstay of modern console shooters is here. For those unfamiliar, get nearly on target; click the “aim” button. This will snap to iron sights or targeting scope and then quickly pop off your shot. You have about a half second or so where you’ll be snapped to right on target, with a hand cannon properly supplemented this can mean a one shot kill. Even with this help it's still very tricky especially when you're trying to use the "sky-lines" a series of roller coasters that you can skim along adding an interesting layer to combat. The good thing is, with Elizabeth scrounging for ammo in the background, I rarely found myself in need of bullets. Even in the most intense firefights I only needed to switch out weapons from my favourite pairings (hand cannon and shotgun for high power and room clearing capability or hand cannon and pistol for high power and rapid accurate fire). You’ll find your magic combo but once I got my hands on that hand cannon I was pretty much set for the game.
On the topic of Elizabeth, thankfully there was mechanic built in where you were required to protect her. She didn’t take damage and took care of herself, in fact during the heat of combat she will scour the battlefield and when you are running low on health, ammo or salts (the “mana” for your vigors) toss you a refill. While this is great, and her ability to pick locks removes the annoying and distracting hacking elements it does also at times take some of the challenge out of the game. Having played on Normal this may be less of an issue in harder play through or 1999 mode (the souped up super hard mode which changes baseline health, ammo distribution and gives you less flexibility with your vigors so choose wisely).
One issue I do have with the game is one that is not easily addressed, due to the limitations of the medium and the style (first person shooter) violence, and at times exceptionally grotesque violence, is the only tool you have to interact with the environment. As the gaming medium evolves we will need to find new ways to tell these stories and interact and it feels like companies like Telltale are leading the charge with their Walking Dead and Fables games. Thankfully the realities of this violence do not go unaddressed in the game itself which mitigates it to a certain extent.
More close to reality than some people would care to admit.
Now, the story, as mentioned previously the BioShock series is known for its compelling source material. In the first two stories you were dealing with Objectivism and Rand’s philosophical hypocrisy. Interestingly the game was released at the same time as the rise of the Tea Party who make Rand their godhead.
It starts as a pretty straight forward “Recue the princess” plot… just you’re a gambling debt laden former Pinkerton detective/thug who’s trying to just get out from under whatever he’s under. You find yourself in this Rockwell painting of a world but there’s puss under the surface of this shiny wound. The Vox Populi are a workers movement, unlike the first BioShock which used Communism/Big Government as the boogieman Andrew Ryan was fighting Vox Populi are a group who’s goals seem noble enough. Equality and fairness, but in fact are a segment of the Anarchist movement which was thriving and a major source of labour strife during the early part of the 20th century. And this is where the BioShock games truly thrive; who could have thought a videogame could use American Exceptionalism, the Anarchist Movement, Quantum Physics, and Pinkerton detectives to tell a story let alone one with echos of current American politics in the same way the original BioShock. This is what art and storytelling in gaming should strive towards, social commentary of a truly literate and meaningful way.
The story progresses with you and Elizabeth slowly forming a partnership, then a friendship, and finally a genuine affection for one another. In a touching moment you even take the time to sing together if you pick up the guitar at the right time. This makes her more than a plot element or a pet used to fetch health and bullets but a character you genuinely care for. By the beginning of the third act I was truly desperate to save her, but I also was starting to see the patterns and I knew where this story was going but I had to continue it was that compelling because I wanted it to not be true. Like the film 12 Monkeys I knew how this was going to end but I had to see it through to see if there would be some kind of last minute twist but mainly because I loved these characters so much I was there with them for the ride. Whilst not as bleak as 12 Monkeys it’s pretty darn tragic at times and really has a gravitas few other games come close to. The conclusion is a satisfying (if philosophically loaded) one that may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it was like a Joss Whedon story it’s one that the players need, not the one they want and for an industry that’s build on sequels it was a pretty ballsy decision for the development team to make in how they ended it. The released DLC wisely makes use of the multiverse to explore Rapture instead of returning to Columbia. Messing with this story at this point would seem disrespectful but the lucky thing is when it comes to the multiverse and quantum mechanics there are always more dimensions to explore and everyone wanted more Rapture. Sadly though, this may have been our only excursion to Columbia since Irrational has restructured with much of the team leaving and Levine focusing on screen writing and smaller projects.
- Adult story with a nuanced conclusion
- The princess trope is turned on its side if not its head
- Compelling protagonists in an intelligent and compelling world
- Beautiful visuals and amazing music
- Violence at times is so grotesque and extreme it can be a hindrance to the story