This is a quick n’ dirty retrospective on the original Bioshock, which will hopefully help fill the space until I feel I’ve played enough of Prey to have what I feel is a genuine opinion on it. Bioshock and some Prey spoilers ahead. Strap in kids.
I’ve been spending a lot of time playing Arkane’s Prey – and that has me thinking. It has me thinking about where the Shock series went wrong. Specifically, it has me thinking a lot about the original Bioshock.
Bioshock blew up when it came out. It was a massive financial and critical success and built itself a permanent place in the collective gaming consciousness. Even I have a deeply nostalgic taste for this game. Yet when I look back on it all these years later, and having played through Bioshock HD earlier this year, it just doesn’t hold up to standards Bioshock itself set.
Now, hold on, before you get your angry commenting fingers limbered up and ready to type out your essay, hear me out. Bioshock arrived at the perfect time to blow everybody away, and that, in my opinion, contributed more to its success than the quality of the game itself.
I first played Bioshock sometime around 2008 or 2009. It was the only game I ever bought on OnLive. a video game streaming service similar to Sony’s Playstation Now. I played this fantastically immersive demo for this mysterious game called Bioshock, and convinced one of my parents to purchase it so I could play through the entire thing. So began one of the most engrossing long weekends of my life. I sat there, huddled up in my room, and let Bioshock take me away to a beautiful dystopia of underwater horror.
I was a young and impressionable early teen at the time. My parents were always very keen on sheltering me from anything particularly adult or interesting. As a result, Bioshock was like walking into a whole new reality. I played it for three days straight right up until bed, being a reclusive little shit at the time; even opting to play through the game many times more until the 1-month rental of the game was up. A disc copy of the game would grace the Playstation 3 I bought years later and the PC versions (both original and HD) sit proudly in my steam library to this day.
To say the least, Bioshock is a viscerally nostalgic game for me, and I think it is for many other people, too. It was the first game to really take major advantage of the technology of the time. All the RPG buffs were blown away by how status effects actually affected the AI’s behavior in such a convincing way, the game story crowd couldn’t rip their attention away for fear of leaving themselves on a cliffhanger. Bioshock was the game that showed us this new generation of gaming was going to kick more ass than a rocket-propelled boot grenade shot into the center of a donkey herd
Yet, after all this time, how does it hold up as a game? As per my usual style of these articles, I’m going to break each flaw of the game down and nitpick it apart to get at the core of my point.
Part I: Gameplay Balance
Put those antsy fingers down down, I say! What could possibly be wrong with Bioshock’s gameplay, you ask? Well, nothing really, from a core perspective. Bioshock is still as reactive and viscerally satisfying as it was the day it came out. Instead, I want to talk about it from a balancing perspective.
First of all, I invite you to think back – what plasmids did you use throughout your first several playthroughs of Bioshock? Did they change much? Did you maybe try to inject some variety by playing with the more out-there plasmids? Perhaps, but in point of fact you, like most people, used a handful of effective core combat plasmids and not much else. Why?
The answer is simple, really, the other plasmids are just kind of useless. They’re at best novelty items to play with between being able to purchase the tiered upgrades for your fire, lightning, and ice plasmid. While there are certainly a massive host of plasmids in Bioshock, you probably used a larger variety of weapons then you did plasmids themselves. Future iterations of this series did better, but still suffered from the same issues.
There’s very few situations in which these plasmids are actually useful. They cost a lot of EVE and have no real tangible benefit if you compare them to the varying degrees of free damage and stun those three core elemental plasmids provide you with. Difficulty plays into this to a degree, the game doesn’t provide you with enough difficulty to force you into situations where these plasmids are viable.
The word situational carries a lot of weight here, as it describes the core issue with a lot of these plasmids. A lot of the game’s combat encounters are simply too scripted to set up a situation in which these plasmids become a benefit rather than just extra fluff. Arkane knew this was a problem in Dishonored and Prey, and solved the issue by making the enemies reactive outside of combat, too, encouraging you to lead them into situations where the varied tools at your disposal have more benefit than the situations in which Bioshock almost glues you into.
Now, in my Dishonored article, I mentioned Bioshock has some stealth elements, but its all highly scripted. Walk into a room, and some asshole two rooms down will start yelling very loudly about his latest grievance when it comes to living in a hellish free maket-gone-wrong nightmarescape. That gives you the oppurtunity to set up an attack or trap, sure, but I invite you to try luring him somewhere without getting his attention. There’s really not many options for doing this beyond just drawing aggro and sprinting for wherever your trap(s) are. This makes trap plasmids and the trip mines only have one singular use that requires a lot of extra effort compared to just shooting our friend with the exact same plasmid, for almost no tangible additional reward.
This is a gameplay issue that permeates an enormous sum of games, where one strategy is just so effective, why would a player escape the loop of positive feedback they’ve been encouraged into since they began playing.
Part 2: Environmental Interactivity
This one’s gonna grind the gears of the group of people who are upset by any mention of System Shock 2 in the context of Bioshock. The type of people who are too combative and ignorant to learn a game with some unintuitive but deep and rewarding mechanics (and a group I used to be a member of).
While Bioshock exceeds expectations in the way of enemy interactivity, especially for its time, it falls deeply short in the area of interacting with the environment. Bioshock’s environments are immersive, lovingly detailed, and every corner tells one story or another. The problem is there’s just not much to do in those corners. System Shock 2 made you invest points into stats, which means that, unless you opted out of combat skills entirely, there was no way you could get everywhere, and collect every item and resource the game left for you to find.
Bioshock has even more pickups and clutter than even System Shock 2 had, and yet there’s no real gating of them. Occasionally you’ll have to zap a door or go hunt down a keycode for a nice dose of goodies, or hack a vending machine to save your money, but that’s about it from an interactivity perspective. You have no inventory. You just mash the use key on every body or container you find and are inundated with free stuff. Alcohol and cigarettes and other items that carry a cost/reward benefit all don’t fill an inventory, they’re immediately consumed on being picked up. This has the effect of walling off a huge amount of strategies that the previous game in this series already had.
This may not seem a huge problem but these small irritances gradually just add up to a game that is not very replayable compared to its predecessors and its new successor. Even the first System Shock with its fundamentally frustrating controls scheme and giant, blocky UI (among a host of other usability issues) has more replay value ultimately than Bioshock does. As far as I’m concerned, there’s just not too much to do in Bioshock and the core combat is not varied enough to carry more than two runs through the game, one for both endings. Even then, the game will get stale and repetitive fast as you play Pipe Mania for the 67th time.
Part 3: Ludonarrative Dissonance
Yes, I am being facetious. Better writers and more intelligent people than I have gone into depth on this subject. If you really don’t understand the “debate”, I recommend Errant Signal’s video covering it. He does a good job of covering both the history and the implications of this concept and how it relates to Bioshock.
I’ll sum this section up by making the following comparison: In Bioshock, you walk into a room, a cutscene starts, and you watch as the game railroads you right through Andrew Ryan’s skull. In Prey, by comparison, you walk up to Alex Yu, a man who is as not only as manipulative and dangerously ambitious as Andrew Ryan once was, but also your brother. A cutscene starts, but you have the choice of whether, after everything you’ve seen, to hear him out, or dome him with the wrench and run for the hills (wait, space stations don’t have hills!). In fact, Prey has an alternate ending that lets you just flee the situation entirely (this ending is considered a failstate by the game, but its an ending nonethesame)
In conclusion, while Bioshock is by no means a bad game even by today’s standards, it’s certainly missing a certain something. In the effort Irrational Games made to streamline the game, they lost some of the heart and soul of what made System Shock 2, and by extension, Prey, so compelling. I hope people can take off their rose-tinted glasses and think about it critically, and I hope this article also convinced some of you to try System Shock or Prey, and do your own comparing and contrasting.
And remember, at the end of the day, video games are video games. Nobody’s shitty cynical opinion should affect your enjoyment of a game. Don’t get so worked up over it.