The Things I Don`t Like about BioShock
TomChick - Features - Comments - 08/22/07

The things I don't like about BioShock I mostly don't like because the game is so good. For instance, nearly any other game could end with an escort mission and then a multi-staged boss fight and I wouldn't mind. 'Yeah, that's just how games work,' I'd tell myself, secretly glad to be finished.

But it was different with BioShock. After so many hours of doing so many things so well and so differently, I knew I was going to be disappointed when it ended. But I didn't know I was going to be disappointed how it ended.

I don't mean the story. The Little Sisters piling on Fontaine and plunging their needles into him was a great image. The "bad" ending was suitably chilling, and the "good" ending was surprisingly touching. (I almost rolled my eyes when the Little Sister got her diploma, but mere seconds later, by the time the Little Sisters held my dying hand, I was about ready to tear up. Yeah, I'm a sucker for that sort of thing and I guess BioShock somehow knows that about me.)

But the ending really let me down on a couple of counts. First of all, Proving Grounds was a miserable bit of game design, not just for how it was a tedious and linear escort mission, but mostly for how it betrays a core concept the game has been teaching me for the last fifteen hours: Little Sisters are precious.

Now, to be fair, it's obvious there has to be an escort mission. Once I'm going to play a Big Daddy, the final touch isn't my gloves or helmet or voice module. The final touch is my own Little Sister. So the Catch 22 for Irrational yes, I'm going to call them by their pre-renaming name is that they have to do an escort mission. I suspect I'd have been more disappointed if they didn't do it. But because they're so gunshy about fail states again, I suspect I'd have been more disappointed if the game forced me to keep replaying this escort mission they just keep giving me Little Sisters as quickly I can get them killed. And boy did I get them killed.

I was partly confused by how the rules changed somewhere in the course of Proving Grounds. Security cameras and turrets seemed to leave me alone. Was this the bit that was referenced earlier in the game about Jack having the same genetic material as Ryan and therefore being able to subvert the security system? I don't think so. I'm not clear why the rules changed, much less what the changes were. All I knew was that I was walking down a pre-set path through an admittedly cool museum level with nothing to do but pound on splicers who were pounding on my latest Little Sister. The stakes were low, the tension was non-existent, and suddenly the Little Sisters were an infinitely renewable commodity, kind of like the potato chips in from the conditioning machine in Little Wonders. Once I realized what Irrational had done, I just wanted to get to the end of that part.

It was also really disappointing that becoming a Big Daddy didn't change the gameplay at all. At the end of Chronicles of Riddick, when you hijack one of those security suits, the game goes off on a wonderful spree of unfettered destruction. At the end of Half-Life 2, when you get a super gravity gun, nothing can stand in your way. These are best case examples of one of my favorite design mandates: establish a paradigm and then break it.

But at the end of BioShock, when I become a Big Daddy, I'm just trading a little peripheral vision for a heavier footfall sound effect. After fifteen hours of showing me how bad-ass these guys are, I expected a little more once I was in their shoes. I expected Irrational to know about that whole establish a paradigm and then break it thing. I mean, it's not like I invented that. Heck, that goes all the way back to Mario.

As for the final battle with Fontaine, it was silly and seemed to come from another game. Why does Fontaine look like a living Academy Award? Because the gangster voice sure doesn't seem to go with the Art Deco Idealized Man. And why is he hooked up to something lifted from System Shock? When did Metroid become one of the influences for BioShock? Speaking of which, what's up with being able to win by circle strafing while Fontaine dashes straight at me? A game like Killer 7 knew to play these sequences for the jokes they are. Considering that BioShock is about 110% as smart and 300% as coherent as Killer 7, I get the feeling that Irrational not only let us down, but they knew they were letting us down.

That said, I did love the Little Sister reaching down from the vent to hand me her needle. Nearly everything else in the final level I could have done without.

I feel a bit guilty harping on these issues. As I said, in a lesser game, I probably wouldn't have even noticed. And these things didn't take away from BioShock's overall accomplishments, which are considerable and unforgettable. But I still feel a bit like a termite in Versailles, particularly since I don't pretend to have answers for how Irrational could have ended the game any better. My input would have consisted of wrinkling my nose and saying something like: "Uhhh, yeah, you should probably not have that boss fight. And don't play so fast and loose with Little Sisters. It makes me feel oogy." There you go: Tom Chick on game design.

On a more tangible note, here are my user interface complaints:

* Unless you're at a Gene Bank, there's no way to see which tonics you have equipped.

* You can't see which upgrades you've gotten from Power to the People stations.

* You can't see which research bonuses you've gathered using your camera.

* The Gene Bank interface is messy. When I highlight a row of tonics or plasmids, the column on the right should show me a list of everything I have for that category. Also, I shouldn't have to toggle descriptions for highlighted plasmids and tonics.

* From the paused-game weapons menu, I should be able to see how many rounds of each ammo type I have. As it is, I can only see if I have zero, or more than zero.

* From the U-Invent menu, I should be able to see how many of each item I already have. And I certainly shouldn't be blindly allowed to invent more of an item than I'm allowed to carry, at least not without some sort of warning.

* When I pick up ammo, it would be nice to see how many rounds of that ammo I already have in addition to how many I'm picking up.

Finally, I was a bit disappointed in Hephaestus. I have to shut down a power core? Really? You sure you want to do that Irrational? I mean, seriously, a power core? If I never shut down another power core in all my days of gaming, I'll be happy.

Also, the first instance of splicers playing dead in Hephaestus certainly made me jump, but it was a cheap trick, the gaming equivalent of a cat scare. Plus, Irrational, you fucking cheated by not giving some ingame explanation, like you did for the Little Sister invulnerability, or why there are no Little Brothers, or the "Plasmid Blues" ghosts. Even id provided a justification for chainsaws on Mars. What was it about Hephaestus and later that taught splicers to pretend they're dead, just so they can jump up and cat scare me? Did I miss an audio diary?

Okay, that's it. But I had to say those things to get them out of my system. Now I can get back to the business of loving BioShock utterly and almost completely.

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