Here goes with number one, BioShock.
I have quietly considered this game for a while now and took the plunge in the Steam holiday madness sale getting it for about £3 or something like that. Looking at the past trailers and such the style latched on to me fairly quickly but I never got round to getting the game. It has this film noir thing going on mixed with some classic horror in an art deco steam punk setting underwater.... if that cocktail did not blow a fuse in your brain then keep reading.
As always I start with a quick run down of the setting before moving on to the actual gaming. You start as some unnamed and unknown quantity on an aircraft that quickly runs into some mechanical issues and finds the water below to be suddenly appealing. After the love affair runs its course and the plane is smashed to bits you seem to be the only one alive in the water with burning jet fuel and flight cushions floating in the bobbing seas. As you look around you see, unnerving close to the crash, a kind of light house in the middle of the ocean like a beacon with stairs leading up from a dock. Seeking shelter and maybe some help you climb the stairs and go inside to be greeted by a dilapidated lobby that looks like a welcome suite, and an elevator at the far end. Well, sitting around will not get you help so naturally you pull the lever and it turns into a submarine that goes back under water and heads off on some auto pilot as a slide show plays telling you of some scientist called Dr Ryan who has a dream for a utopian community where people can be whatever they want. This is Rapture.
There is a reason I am giving some emphasis on the 'why' of your character's actions which I will come back to soon. But back to Rapture. You soon realise when you get there that it is becoming a bit of a shit hole and the place is a complete mess. The elevator/sub grinds to a halt in a debarkation room with some kind of freaky thing attacking someone who you heard on the radio in the sub, and then it turns attention to you in the flickering lights and does a good job of being scary before running off again. Then the radio flares up again and a guy called Atlas introduces himself and ask for your help. Naturally he plays the survivor story on you and wants to hook up, but not before you help him and rescue his family. He becomes your constant nagging companion all the way telling you things about Rapture and the people within.
Essentially, the good doctor who made Rapture found ways to splice people's genes with superpowers available in a convenient injection from handily placed vending machines. Want to throw fireballs? Buy an injection. Want to freeze something by touch or have telekinetic powers? See above. Of course, most of the powers you encounter seem to have some primary application as a weapon, and even the little info vids that pop up when you install a power leave little to the imagination that you are meant to use these against your fellow man. Which I guess is hardly surprising that the place suddenly went to hell in the proverbial hand basket.
I should maybe give you a quick run down on the malodorous denizens of Rapture. For the most part they are citizens who have gone off the deep end in some way and became a raving gang of lunatic killers with their own special talents between them. There are people who like pistols, some who like wrenches, some who are insane medical staff, some are like spiders climbing the walls with hooks on their hands and so on. You also have other residents with an even stranger agenda in the form of the 'little sisters'. And they have a bouncer with them called a 'big daddy' who protects her. The little sister is a creepy thing in a red dress and some kind of hypo-gun in her hand sucking stuff from the dead bodies. It is almost as if they are possessed to do so for some reason I still cannot work out yet, and they have a fairy godmother watching over them with a .44 magnum. Some Doctor who is apparently responsible for unleashing the little sisters on Rapture and now wants to make amends through you by asking you to rescue them from their curse giving you some power of touch that stops them being creepy.
Or you could do as Atlas suggests and just harvest them, which kills them. You see, the one thing they give you is something called Adam which they are extracting from the dead, and I gather is some prime genetic material used for gene splicing that revolutionised the genetics works of the Dr Ryan while in Rapture making all things possible. If you rescue them you get a bit of Adam, if you harvest them you get a lot of Adam. Of course, you have to get them away from the big daddy first by killing it and that is no easy task. They will not let you get near their little sister since they want the Adam anyway. You can use your hard earned Adam as a form of currency at vending machines to buy new powers in a bottle, and unlock more slots to fit them in.
The story itself is delivered in short bursts over the radio with Atlas and a few other voices who chirp in from time to time as well as recordings you find dotted around the place like audio logs. This makes it rather disjointed without the traditional and more true RPG conversation tracks with the NPCs. A quote from Gamespot's BioShock page:
BioShock creates an amazing world that you'll want to explore and a compelling mystery that slowly comes together as you play.
Note the use of the word, 'slowly'. This is an understatement and the way it is presented soon left me confused early on and I eventually had to admit I was lost.
Not just in terms of the plot but also why I was suddenly waving a gun around and doing Atlas' bitch work for him. I cannot figure my character's angle here or even why he is meant to be good at combat. He is not a soldier, spy or other such typical archetype so why he is not cowering in fear wetting himself in a dark corner of Rapture is beyond me. It seems little work is done to integrate the player character into the actual story at all and provide a primary motivation beyond simply letting the player at the keyboard enjoy the ride. And the way the story soon pans out it is a wonder to me why they simply did not just go with a usual angle of investigator checking out the under water colony of Rapture after hearing about some strange ape shit things happening. How can the world not know about this vast underwater kingdom going belly up and send in the marines?
The way this story is delivered seems more fitting to an open world setting where you find random logs of a story in any order you find them while you progress through, and piece it together yourself. In the case of BioShock they put this system into a pretty linear mode of game play and it does not fit well above a normal narrative system they could have adopted, leaving the small radio diary logs you find scattered around to simply add more flesh instead of being the bones as well.
I have also noticed as I play through that the lack of a fully engaging story causes me to be a little sidetracked. Since my Win 7 upgrade I have had to reinstall other games and, as mentioned before, I bought Mass Effect 2 and am replaying the first Mass Effect game to import a save game state. And I seem to be replaying a game I have already played more than BioShock right now. I suspect the story layout of BioShock is to blame here...
Still, with that out of the way, the actual combat is pretty good and has a nice feel with blurred vision and wider properties to the superpowers you get from injecting the plasmids such as electricity having more effect on targets in water, the fire ability igniting standing oil on the ground and melting ice letting you get access to stuff and new areas. Also, soon after I fired the pistol I realised the smoking gun barrel had a nice effect where moving around caused the whisp of smoke to leave a trail, bringing the noir feeling to the forefront every now and then.
The atmosphere created is thick and glorious with moments of blood chilling terror as you see shadows round a corner you know from the map is a dead end, the lights flicker and then they are gone only to jump you from behind later. Or the low drone of a near by Big Daddy as it plods along at a rather sedate pace, each footfall shaking the ground and sending a gout of dust into the air.
There is the ability to hack the vending machines as well as sentry guns and helicopter gun drones to be on your side. Though it takes the form of a mini-game as most seem to do which is a game of connecting pipes. The difficulty increases with the grace period before the water flows being shorter and the grid being smaller and riddled with broken pipes you cannot move. Soon they become tedious and hacking vending machines only gives you a slim discount on goods.
There is an almost non-existent inventory management which I feel is a big minus for the game. Whatever you find food wise, you consume there and then to keep healthy otherwise you are wasting your time. And no one has a desire to backtrack over the level to find that snack bar you left earlier now you need it. Once again, I find myself holding a game up to Fallout 3 to compare features, and while I have resisted mainly due to the mode of game play adopted here being substantially different to Bethesda's contribution to my crippled social life, an inventory system and the reasons for needing one are pretty much relevant to BioShock. Stocking up food for later consumption seems to me like something an unlikely hero in a tight spot would do.
I will leave my review here, though, as I have lingered too long on this one and not feeling an impulse to play the game as much as I would have expected and I am sure I have seen a decent dose of it to render a verdict.
BioShock can stand on its own as a shooter game, with a few features and nicely done combat and utility powers, an upgrade system and no level grinding you see too much of in most shooters today where the developers feel the need to bog a player down with mindless busywork trying to get another fractional sum of damage out of their weapons. And there is a simple arsenal of weapons, in the form of one of each kind of weapon and nothing more, something not really seen much past the days of Duke Nukem 3D. It is atmospheric and uncomplicated as far as game play goes, but unless you really pay attention to every scrap of story, don't expect to have a clue what is going on at first. I expect the conclusion of the game will shed a lot of light on stuff that has been going on, so if I have some second thoughts, expect to see a follow up blog in the future. But for now I got a bigger list of games to get through.