Bioshock: A review

Again, for posterity.

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‘No Gods or Kings, Just Man’. So is the premise to the fictional underwater city of Rapture, a kind of utopia set up by one Andrew Ryan, consisting of the crème of humakind; artists, scientists, people who excel at their field. A city rejecting big government, both capitalism and communism and god:

“I am Andrew Ryan, and I’m here to ask you a question: Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? No, says the man in Washington. It belongs to the poor. No, says the man in the Vatican. It belongs to God. No, says the man in Moscow. It belongs to everyone. I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose—– Rapture. A city where the artist would not fear the censor. Where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality. Where the great would not be constrained by the small. And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well. “

So he creates this kind of Ann Randian Utopia underneath the Atlantic Ocean in 1946, away from post World War Two society. Rejecting any form of socialist projects, it is firmly some kind of capitalist society of several thousand people, all unrestrained from censorship and, most importantly, not guided by any form of morality, either from government or religious organisations. Each person, guided by their own free will, would be able to create and succeed in their respective fields, not being constrained by society and authority. After several years of growth, mainly in the field of genetics, things start to go wrong; the lower classes start to rebel against the increasing authoritarianism of Ryan (so much for his ‘utopia’) and riots ensue, resulting in the destruction of rapture; enter dystopia and the protagonist.

Bioshock is a first person shooter (FPS), no doubt, but it has role-playing elements in it, such as building up your character through the use of ‘plasmids’, created from a substance called ‘ADAM’ which alter your genetic code to make you more powerful; essentially, processed ‘ADAM’ created stem cells in its host which allowed new genetic material to be ‘spliced’ into the DNA of the host. something that the scientists had discovered from a deep sea species of slug. These plasmids became Raptures ‘drug’, resulting in many of its citizens going mad from its use. And this is what you see when you first enter Rapture; a underwater city in ruins, with ‘splicers’, citizens who suffer from excessive plasmid use, roaming around.

I do not usually play FPS games, but I make exceptions for ones with a good storyline and not just mindless killing; Bioshock contains a fantastic plot, probably one of the best plot for an FPS to date. It is a ‘spiritual successor’ to the System Shock games, being made by the same company, Irrational Games who created System Shock 2 (SS2). In fact, the way the game plays out is very similar to SS2, which was a kind of survival horror game set in space. I found SS2, released in 1999, to be an incredible experience, again with its RPG elements, its use of audio tapes found throughout the levels detailing what had happened to the space ship and the use of music, which underlined its scary atmosphere. And Bioshock is set in a very similar vein; its a survival horror FPS with RPG elements – this time set in some kind of steam or cyber-punk setting – and equally as scary. Musically it excels as well, with 1950s era songs contained throughout the game, such as Billie Holiday & Django Reinhardt. Always nice to be scared witless out of your chair whilst the Jitterbug Waltz is playing in the background…

Bioshock is also probably one of the first FPS games to contain a quite important moral element to its plot; you have to decide whether to save what are known as ‘little sisters’, little girls who go around collecting ‘ADAM’ from dead splicers/citizens. Your choices are to either save them, or kill them for their ‘ADAM’. Saving them can alter the way you play the game later on. One of the reasons why I avoided Bioshock when it was released in 2007 was due to this fact; after playing the demo, and not really understanding the game that much, I found it quite distasteful. However, there is a moral issue here which I found to be quite novel for a computer game, and fits in well with the storyline.

I don’t usually like telling the world that I play PC games; at my age I guess you could get quite embarrassed? No? But due to its intelligent storyline, questionable morality and intense gameplay, I think it (hopefully) will set a standard for future games, or at least make companies create FPS games with slightly more depth other than mindless killing, which I think are just not good. If there is a message, or at least a moral to the storyline in Bioshock, then maybe its that without guidelines, whether they be of an ideological or theological one, or at least have some underpinnings of each, then perhaps we would be doomed? It also raises the question on how far genetics should go. The theme underpinning the storyline is the results of excessive misuse of genetic modification, resulting from an idealistic utopia into a hellish dystopia. Also, Ann Rand was totally against any form of socialism, or socialised society, placing the individual and free market above all; if Rapture would be the logical creation from her philosophy, then it certainly would result in a, well, total breakdown of society. Noam Chomsky called Rand (according to the wikipedia article):
“one of the most evil figures of modern intellectual history.”

I hear that they are creating a sequel, and also a film version, directed by Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean and The Ring director), which should be more than interesting.

Update:
I wrote this brief review before I had actually finished the game; well, I have just finished it. All I can really say is that it probably is one of those gaming moments that live with you for a long time; games come and go, none really passing the excellent mark, but just serve as to waste away time in front of a virtual experience. Some games however you do remember, either for their new ideas incorporated into the gaming world, their storyline or how well they captivate you into their world. Over the years, being a gamer, there are few that have really struck me as being really good. I find it also strange that the ones which I do remember fondly are actually from Irrational Games, or Looking Glass Studios; System Shock and the Thief series of games had defining gaming moments for me, more so probably than Half Life, which is seen as a ground-breaking FPS. Both Thief and SS2 were games that actually scared you, I think probably SS2 was the most scariest game I have ever played, although Bethesdas ‘Call of Cthulhu’ came pretty close as well. So what are we looking at here? I think it is a combination of having a well written storyline, intense gameplay, great level design, with music and background sounds playing a key underlying role. Good graphics help too. Both SS2 and Bioshock contain all elements.

The ending of Bioshock is pretty spectacular; you kill the bad boss at the end of the game, and as I stated in my review above, how you dealt with the ‘little sisters’ during the game has an impact on the final scene, as there are two different endings. I chose to save them (well I don’t think I could have actually been as mean as to hurt them seeing as they were savable), so you get the final cut scene of being thanked by the now-ordinary little girls, helping you all escape from the hell that was Rapture, and living back in the real world, where they grow up, get married….oh well you get the picture. It was a happy ending. I know this game will stick with me for a long time; I might replay it, because there is a lot of audio tapes which I missed first run though as well as other things, but the main thing about Bioshock was its intelligent plot. Good game.

Neverwinter Nights 2: A review

I wrote this sometime ago now, its on my myspace site. Again for posterity sakes…

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I have just spent the best part of a week playing through Neverwinter Nights 2, a computer role playing game based in the Dungeons and Dragons Forgotten Realms universe. This game is the sequel to the original Neverwinter Nights, released around 2001, which spawned two official sequels and numerous extra content, downloadable from the Bioware site for a small fee, or from fan pages. The main thing about the NWN games is their toolset. Packaged with the original games is software that allows players to create their own adventures using the aurora engine, the game engine created by Bioware for NWN. When I first purchased NWN back in 2001/2, I never particularly found it gripping enough; I preferred the infinity engine created for the Baldurs Gate series of games, despite it being 2D isometric; it just seemed more of a deeper, intelligent game. A lot of the depth contained within the BG games appeared to have vanished with the introduction of 3rd Edition rules and the new 3D engine, well not necessarily because of 3rd Ed. rules, but because of the game engine itself, or at least the campaign. I never finished the NWN campaign because of this fact, I felt there was something missing, probably because NWN was designed from the bottom up as a multiplayer game, whereas BG was primarily intended for a solo player experience. I think the main gripe was not being able to use more than one other party member (NPC), or henchman as the game called them. The infinity engine allowed up to five other fully fledged NPCs, with their own dialogue and history and in BG2 there were even romance options between your character and various NPC’s. Also, BG had an almost non-linear campaign, and in some sense it was quite dynamic; you could spend most of your time doing side quests and only advance the main plot at your choosing – there were enough quests to keep you occupied before getting to grips with the main campaign. The NWN campaign was very linear in retrospect.

So on to NWN2. The first thing is that it comes with its own toolset, like NWN, but the main campaign shipped with the game is where, in my opinion, it shines over NWN. The first thing I noticed was the vastly improved graphics (even though to experience it fully you will need a quite high end system), as well as the re-introduction of having several NPCs to choose as your companions, as per Baldurs Gate. Its also a much deeper and probably darker campaign than the original, having some great dialogue options which can shift your alignment in either direction depending on how you role play. You also gain (or loose) influence with your NPCs which can have an effect on how they interact with you, and it comes into its own during the end game, where they might join with the enemy you have been fighting all along if their influence is low towards you. The campaign is based several years after the original NWN game; the plague and the war with Luskan is over, but now Neverwinter and the northern realms face a much darker enemy, the King of Shadows, an entity which is thousands of years old, dating from the Ilfarn Empire, the old Alliance between Elves and Dwarfs. As the game progresses you begin to learn all about Faerun, the fictional setting of the game. Your character starts as an innocent peasant in a village called West Harbour, but you end up becoming a hero and saving the realms from the evil that begins to plague the land. Standard D&D stuff.

For me at least, I think it was the depth of the dialogue and story line which made it. There is a fantastic court case where you become implicated in the slaughter of a village called Ember, situated within the Luskan border (it’s a set up), and you really need to make sure your dialogue skills are up to scratch, such as your diplomacy, bluff or intimidate skills to give the Luskan envoy a run for their money. Its really well done. Along with that, because NWN uses the 3.5 edition rules there is the introduction of a lot of new character classes, such as the Spirit Shaman, Favoured Soul and more prestige classes; the Divine Champion; one of the Neverwinter Nine and the Arcane Scholar of Candlekeep are just a few. It increases the games replayability, plus, despite its linear campaign, the NPCs can act in different ways based on your moral choices you make throughout the game, so each time you play it using different NPCs can be different, or at least offer some degree of replayability and with all the new classes and some new races if you buy the expansion, this is quite important. In a lot of ways it is a return to the old BG-type of roleplay experience, something which the original NWN lacked, and I gather that the next expansion released for NWN2, Storm of Zehir, will further herald back to the BG gameplay experience adding more dynamism and non-linearity plus the ability to create your own NPCs, which is similar to the BG spin off – Icewind Dale. Oh, did I mention the graphics? Despite NWN2 being quite buggy and having poor performance on release, the patches released for the game have stabilised it considerably; the spell effects are out of this world, and when you end up in a serious fight with mages and clerics, it really can be quite spectacular to watch the fireworks go off! Its really quite something. I liked looking at the interior wall paintings and bookshelves; they really look good and the interior lighting is fantastic.

Once you have progressed into the final Act 3, you take control of Crossroad Keep, and you have to build it up from scratch, repairing the damage, recruiting soldiers and finding ore deposits to furnish your soldiers with better arms and armour. I think this added a novel touch to the game, but it was over quite quick and after the game you don’t know how well you fared during the battle with the King of Shadows. I think it could have been fleshed out further but it was a nice touch and added to the role playing experience.

If you play the game doing all the little side quests, I reckon there must be at least 60 hours worth of gameplay here – it’s a big game. Add the two expansions – The Mask of the Betrayer and Storm of Zehir, plus the toolset, then you have a game which is worth every penny, and the game is also well supported by its creators – Obsidian Entertainment – with the release of numerous patches. Mask of the Betrayer continues from the end of the main campaign, and it is a much deeper game; you end up being saved after the obligatory final show down with the King of Shadows, and are transported a long way from home, to a new country. It seems that you have picked up a curse from a dead god which is very similar with vampirism, but you need spirits to feed from rather than blood. You end up in a country called Rasheman, a country ruled by a higher order of witches who despise you for what you are, a spirit eater, but some witches do offer help and understanding with your quest. I think you really need to understand the Forgotten Realms universe to really grasp what is going on here, and unfortunately the game does not go into the history that much; you gleam information with your dialogue exchanges between allies you pick up on your quest to understand your curse. I think the expansion is trying to herald back to another infinity engine game, Planescape Torment, which in its time (2000) was probably the most intelligent game on the market, due to its depth and meaning. Sometimes I think you need a Degree in English and Philosophy, as well as a great understanding of folklore to really understand what is going on here. Oh, if you are a FR D&D fanatic then you will become enraptured with this. You want a summery of Neverwinter Nights 2? Great graphics, great gameplay, stunning storyline – a very rewarding experience.
Storm of Zehir basically adds lots more to the NWN2 experience; this time the biggest change is the overland map, which is now dynamic and you travel in real time over it, which utilises your Spot, Survival, Listen skills, so playing a Ranger with SoZ probably is a very wise option. The expansion is totally gameplay wise unrelated to the first game, but you do encounter the old places whilst playing, such as Crossroads Keep and NeverWinter. Basically, the premise of the second expansion is that you get shipwrecked in a place called Chult, a jungle area to the south of the Sword Coast. You have to set up a trading empire whilst unravelling the mysteries behind your benefactoress, who is a Yuan-Ti in disguise. The plot is so so, but the changes the game brings in are quite good, which includes a much neater overland map, trading, and a revamped conversational system which just rocks. If only they were retroactive and could be used for the stock campaign, then the game would really shine!