We've all read the writing on the subterranean walls. Reviewers around the world are praising the story of Rapture almost as much as BioShock's chief architect, Andrew Ryan. And like the various journals that permeate the game's underwater world, every bit of copy written about BioShock seems to trump those preceding it. It's as if the very genre of video gaming has been rocked to its core. Statements like "no matter how much you think you are prepared for this game… you aren’t" are just the generic way reviewers are phrasing it.
Read the reviews, and you'll find something more comparable to this: "[BioShock] is a beacon. It's one of those monumental experiences you'll never forget, and the benchmark against which games for years to come will, and indeed must, be measured."
You'll know you've hit the jackpot if you get the sense that said reviewer is blue in the face, having held his breath throughout the entirety of the BioShock experience. It's apparent in this example: "When confronted by a masterpiece of this magnitude -- a game that is almost more of a quest of self-discovery than a mere plaything -- it's impossible to not recognize the brilliance flooding your senses."
Really though? BioShock?
Because I like to maintain the illusion of a social life as much as possible, I only managed to finish BioShock last night. I've been playing it rather religiously since its August 21 launch date. While Jack may have powers, doo-dads, and weapons up the virtual wazoo, real-life Dave has yet to find the Plasmid (power-up, for the uninitiated) that lets him add additional hours to the day. The game's storyline is enough to carry it into the 2007 Hall of Gaming Distinction; I have no argument against that. The journals, the cutscenes, the dialogue -- everything sucked me in and, to BioShock's credit, even managed to pull me away from other games I've been obsessing over.
I'm playing these examples up a little more than I normally would on purpose. I love BioShock's story the same way I drooled over Max Payne. In fact, both games share a similar writing style -- the moral ambiguity of noir fits well with the sense of personal entitlement and ethical quandaries in the 1960s Rapture universe. But only one of those two games is rightly innovative, and I'll give you a clue: it's not BioShock.
I like to run with the dictionary definition of "innovative" when I'm talking about these sorts of things. Innovative, to Mister Webster, describes something that is "a new idea, method, or device." Fire was innovative because, prior to fire, mankind had no recourse for cold nights or cooking. A deep-fried Oreo cookie is innovative because it takes two amazing concepts beautiful in their own right -- cookies and deep-fried food -- and blends them into a single, savory product. Max Payne was innovative because it finally gave users a chance to experience The Matrix's bullet time effect in a real-world setting. You became the Neo of noir, guns blazing through level after level of brutally cinematic gameplay.
BioShock will not stand the test of time as an example of the best the first-person-shooter genre has to offer. Because titles like that deserve to be reserved for genre-changing games like Planescape Torment, Diablo, or Half-Life. These games moved their respective genres forward; to its credit, BioShock is a fine game. But it doesn't innovate. It entertains almost as much as it makes you think, but it does nothing that hasn't already been seen ad nauseum. The fact that it combines a number of motifs into one game isn't innovative, considering first-person-shooters have been doing this since pixilated Imps tossed fireballs. Would you kindly consider the bitter truth:
Reviewers are talking about BioShock's "not really magic but come on, it's magic" system as if they're unfamiliar with the idea that first-person-shooter games can be more than just virtual trips through Guns & Ammo magazine. Well, it's been done. It's been done in shooters, it's the lifeblood of role-playing games; heck, you could even consider super-weapons in real-time strategy games to be a form of magic (and there's always Dungeon Keeper). Yes, you can use plasmids in a variety of interesting ways. But having a magical element make your gaming life easier through ingenuity isn't innovative. It's common sense. Heck, it wasDeus Ex.
The other quasi-plasmids you receive in the game come in the form of Tonics, which you never directly use per se. You equip them and reap from their benefits, but they're as integrated into your real-time experience as magical plate mail on 48th-level warrior. Tonics are no more innovative than an inventory system, which has been a mainstay of video games since Mario and his Tanooki Suit.
When I think of innovative baddies, a lot of games come to mind: the sprawling bosses of Serious Sam, the lightsaber fights in Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, the ever-creepy Alma from F.E.A.R. In contrast, BioShock has only two kinds of enemies. The default grunts are splicers -- genetically modified humans that are completely and absolutely nuts, for lack of a better phrase. They wear little masks, talk and sing in an almost lunatic fashion, and try to kill you in different ways depending on their type and the stage of the game you're at. In early BioShock, they beat you with pipes. Once you hit the late-game, they're tossing Molotov cocktails, riddling you with machine guns, and teleporting around the map.
While you also fight mechanical turrets, in the sense that they rip you to pieces if you stand in front of them, the only other true enemy of BioShock is the Big Daddy. Without going into the back-story of the character, a Big Daddy is BioShock's equivalent of Halo's Scorpion Tank. They're big, lumbering, and they hurt. They hurt real good.
And that's it. You start the game fighting splicers; you end the game fighting splicers. Aside from their presumed trip to the ammo depot somewhere around BioShock's middle, that's all the "innovation" present in BioShock. And if this is "innovative," then the palate-swapping technology of Scorpion and Sub-Zero is the Alexander Graham Bell of video games. BioShock's plenty creative in its level design and presentation. So why do you have to fight exactly the same guys for the entire trip through Rapture?
The Puzzle Game
To open locks and futz around with electronics in BioShock, you play what amounts to Pipe Dream. For those too lazy to Wikipedia this one, Pipe Dream was created in 1989. There have been countless spinoffs, adaptations, and retoolings of this classic puzzle game. But in the end, Pipe Dream is Pipe Dream. BioShock could have created its own puzzle game for the hacking sequences; Bioshock could have added different puzzle games for different devices; BioShock could have changed up the puzzle games as the difficulty progressed; BioShock could have made a random sequence of puzzle games to inject some new life into the game.
Did BioShock do any of this? No. The benefits of modifying the game's items are great, but somewhere around the middle of your Rapture adventure, you'll start doing what I did -- eschewing the puzzle games entirely, or just using a ton of autohack tools to avoid yet another game of... you guessed it. Pipe Dream. Earth to 2K games; gamers have been solving classic puzzles for years.
No first-person shooter is devoid of lame questing elements. The worst examples of such often involve a lot of jumping and airborne maneuvering. BioShock doesn't make you leap across floating platforms of any sort. But from a gameplay perspective, the quests the game offers are standard and unremarkable. Every single major mission in the game is a FedEx quest -- you get a mission, chug across the map to get x of x components for super-special thing y, and that's it. The game will sometimes offer you a "defend this location" mission, but that always tends to occur right after the completion of said FedEx quest.
BioShock has no bonus missions or secondary quests. It gives you no incentive to do anything but follow the HUD's large, objective-pointing arrow, save for whatever personal desire you might have to explore Rapture. While you're occasionally rewarded with an errant weapons upgrade station, a substantial part of your Rapture life consists of rooting through trash bins for nothing. Or if you're lucky, materials for the U-Invent machines.
The game gives you a linear progression and repeats the same quest pattern using different materials, depending on the context of the level. How this could be at all innovative is a mystery to me.
Aside from the archaic Pipe Dream game previously mentioned, BioShock only includes one additional activity for your trip through Rapture. At some point in the game, you're given a camera and tasked with conducting "research" on the baddies of BioShock. The game kind of sluffs off on the entire point of doing so, plot-wise, but that's neither here nor there. Every time you take pictures of Splicers, Big Daddys, or mechanical-stuff-that's-shooting-at-you and the lot, you get a form of experience (research). Take a "better" picture, and you get more. With each subsequent level of "research" you attain, you get some kind of bonus -- either in the form of more health for you, or more damage you do to that particular enemy class, or a new tonic, et cetera.
Sound familiar? Oh, right, it's a rip-off of the XBox 360's Dead Rising. BioShock isn't the first game to offer some kind of reward for putting down the pipe and picking up the photo camera, and yet, Dead Rising's system is still more feature-packed and character-applicable than BioShock's! Impressive innovation indeed -- for Dead Rising, that is.