After a sickening explosion, you awake to the peaceful vision of a string of pearls floating out of a purse in front of your eyes. You twist upwards, and your vision fills with a blanket of oranges and reds that seems to melt through the clear, peaceful water above you. As you break the surface of the water, the suddenly furious blaze rushes upon your skin, eyes and ears with overwhelming and awful power. You struggle to swim through a clear path and see the remnants of your plane throwing water up around it as it groans into the ocean. A silent black tower, barely visible against the night sky, dwarfs the colossal tail. Instinctively, you swim toward it and stumble towards a door, which opens automatically. In a darkened room, you hear a soft, familiar tune playing “Somewhere Under The Sea.” The lights flicker on and reveal a massive, golden, sneering bust looming over you. Beneath it stretches a red banner, which reads “No God or Kings — Only Man.”
There are moments like this in “Bioshock” that will knock the wind out of you. 2K’s latest effort has been lauded as a shining beacon of cinematic immersive gaming, in many cases as the best game of the new generation of consoles. It’s easy to see why — the sound, graphics and gameplay feel cohesive and complete, the presentation is truly excellent, and the story is arresting and at times genuinely disturbing. “Bioshock,” like “Deus Ex” and “System Shock 2” before it, is one of the few first person shooters that seamlessly blends story and action against a fully realized and captivating backdrop.
Problem is, all of the polish and art doesn’t ever really cover up a mediocre first person shooter. The gameplay in “Bioshock” isn’t actively terrible, but it’s far from lustrous. Take the enemies: Sure, they are intricate and complex monsters, horrendously frivolous counterparts to your character’s own single-minded and bloody determination. They are not, however, fun to fight. There are only five different types of opponents throughout the entire game, rendering the initial terrifying shock of each one moot as you slog through the 500th identical “thuggish splicer.”
The game’s almost-iconic “Big Daddy” characters are atmospheric works — the lonely brutes wander through the level with their demon child in tow, never inviting violence but responding with dutiful vigor and savagery when it comes their way. Still, after the first two you see, the echoing groans and lumbering thuds evoke little more than the knowledge that you’re just going to have to run around unloading all your ammo into it until it falls down, more out of attrition than anything else.
Same goes for the environments. The eerie sense of a destroyed city, filled with wreckage and corpses but still resonating with cheerful propaganda, is deeply unsettling. Still, two hours later, players’ interest begins to wane when they can’t tell if they’re coming or going through identically shattered rooms and hallways in the homogenous undersea dystopia of rapture. The whole game design is inspired, but the level design is completely middle-of-the-road. There are places of beauty, places of horror, and places where an onslaught of action breaks suddenly into a calm so tense it will leave your right finger trembling above the trigger. There are, unfortunately, many places in between.
This is not to say that “Bioshock” is a bad game — that would be silly. This is to say that “Bioshock” is not a great game. It fails with the bricks and mortar — there are great ideas, moments and characters, but the game that supports them is nothing more than average. There seems to have been tremendous effort expended designing the twisted Rapture, but it feels like a world designed without a game in mind. I pressed through the game to find out what happened, but I never wanted to replay any level. I remembered the high points of the plot, but never any particular enemy, puzzle or area.
The task, as both character and player, is a grim duty. The main character will travel down the only track available to him, staunchly fulfilling his obligation until it becomes unclear whether his quest to save Rapture is really his quest at all. He will make choices that will resonate throughout Rapture but will wonder whether they are really choices and whether he fulfills his destiny for himself or for someone else, as a man or a slave. As a player, I wanted to love the game and seemed to choose to do so at certain times. Still, in the end, I began to wonder whether what I loved was the game or an idea of what the game could have been, and whether trudging through was an act of joy or obligation. There should be more games like “Bioshock.” But they should be better.