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Wednesday August 29, 2007 5:21 am

Is BioShock a Perfect Game?

BioShock: 10/10?

The reviews have been coming in for a week now, and they have been phenomenal. Consider that according to GameRankings.com, BioShock is the 4th best game of all time. On Metacritic, has received more perfect 100 scores than even The : Ocarina of Time, usually the game cited as the best of all time. Clearly, ‘s Mature-rated, failed utopia FPS is a critical smash hit.
Perhaps then there is little need for another glowing review of the game. Except this is not a glowing review in the strictest sense, because BioShock is not exactly the masterpiece of perfection indicated by these scores. Instead, BioShock is a wonderful game that happens to draw to light the inadequacies of the way games are typically reviewed and the inherent inconsistencies of how games are judged.

The core of the matter is that, as a pure game experience, BioShock stands tall among the best the hobby has to offer: It is superb in its presentation from the stellar graphics to the pitch-perfect sound design including a remarkable score and some wonderful licensed music. The excellence continues all the way to the coherent art design that makes spectacular use of art deco to evoke a mood and time. Even minor presentation elements like the menu systems and on-screen displays are well crafted. But beyond that BioShock contains a full and gripping plot. In the game’s typically thoughtful manner it is revealed in bits and pieces over time, adding an element that is essentially optional but highly rewarding.

Woven into this story is a level of complexity, a true emotional sensibility that touches that most jaded of creature, the hardcore gamer. BioShock features engaging combat, sure, but it has considerations that go beyond the raw mechanics of the game and manage to touch the player directly and cause them to ask some real and wonderfully uncomfortable questions of themselves. Underneath what would ordinarily be a merely competent shooter lies a less tangible but far more evocative completeness in the game design that uses the nature of player interaction to tell a story in a way that could not have been managed by other media. This is, essentially, a shining example of what games can be.

That being said, it sounds like there is little reason to withhold a perfect score or highest possible recommendation. And yet, there is something that nags because BioShock, for all its triumphs, is not perfect.

Technically, BioShock is well crafted but it does have some problems. The frame rate stalls out occasionally, sometimes in predictable locations or when certain events occur. It’s not a slowdown issue, the game appears to lock entirely for several seconds. There is also an infrequent but noticeable texture pop-in issue, not to mention a number of bugs that have been reported including one encountered during the playtest for this review in which a camera, used in the game to photograph foes for research points that add bonuses to combat, glitched out and covered the still-moving screen with it’s sepia-toned filter and angled photo-frame. There have also been reports of AI glitches with the game’s signature foes, the Big Daddies.

All of which could be partially overlooked under the general strength of the game. Except that it doesn’t end there.

The real problem with BioShock isn’t so much a problem with 2K’s game itself but in what it represents as a game that is being hailed as worthy of perfect review scores. Consider for a moment the combat and the way death is handled. Combat in BioShock is a wonderfully rich experience that provides players with a lot of freedom to experiment, to solve problems in their own ways using the game’s genetic powers like telekinesis, lightning bolts or mind controls. Combined with the impressive number of available weapons and some clever environmental variables, combat can be an exciting and extremely varied undertaking.

On the other hand, combat can also be drab and repetitive because the game treats death as a minor setback rather than a serious failure. The game is littered with Vita-Chambers that act as checkpoints liberally distributed around the game’s undersea city setting, Rapture. Each time you lose all your health you are sent back to the nearest activated Vita-Chamber (they activate automatically as you pass them) but, and this is the key, the world around you does not change. Any damage you have dealt to foes who may have killed you remains and you suffer no penalty from loss of items, power-ups or resources. Given enough patience, you could theoretically complete the game using only the first weapon you find, a lowly wrench used as a melee combat device.

By itself this is perhaps not a huge concern except that it does remove some of the challenge of the game. One might argue it removes all the challenge from the game since even the toughest of battles (excepting the final boss fight) can be reduced to dull attrition. Compare this with a game like , whose Spirit World mechanic for handling player death worked in a similar way: Players were whisked into a brief 30-second mini-game before being dropped back right where they left off. Many reviewers blasted this aspect of the game as removing all the challenge from it and rightly so. It’s difficult to understand then how BioShock escapes this fate or even this criticism.

But perhaps the biggest discrepancy between BioShock’s phenomenal reviews scores and the considerable catalog of previous reviews is the omission of multiplayer. Consider the recent FPS title as an example. Shadowrun is a multiplayer-only game sharing spiritual ties with popular PC mods like Counter-Strike. Shadowrun was almost universally panned for shipping without even a cursory campaign mode. Note that does not mean Shadowrun cannot be played single-player, as it can but the experience is simply the multiplayer game with human opponents substituted for bots. This is not to defend Shadowrun per se but is instead a question. How can a FPS be clearly docked points from the final review scores for not including both a campaign and multiplayer while another FPS can carry the exact same limitation and yet be considered perfect or as near to as we bother to distinguish?

Is it that we value single-player campaigns more highly than multiplayer experiences? Does it have something to do with the other limiting factors to online games like broadband internet access? Or maybe the only real deciding factor in a game’s review score is the ephemeral experience it provides and everything else is just a nitpick?

It is possible that Shadowrun and Prey are simply not as good as BioShock and therefore deserve to be valued as lesser quantities. That being the case it would then be necessary to justify this ranking and so reviewers go in search of details they can gripe about to give weight to their scores. But this very practice introduces the kinds of double standards cited above. What then is the point of a review? Can a game paradoxically be flawed yet receive a perfect score? Can we ever be sure what standards are being used to rate a game?

What feels disturbing is that for the most part it would hardly matter: Scores are arbitrary numbers, everyone knows this. Or do they? Recent Gamasutra article about public relations in the game industry and interviews with irate game producers over low scores can showcase that these numbers mean something to some people. But questions ought to be raised about what we value in a game, how we describe that value accurately and what it ought to translate to for any given gamer.

In BioShock’s case the bottom line is this: It is a phenomenal work of game design. It unequivocally ought to be experienced at least once by every gamer. That said, it isn’t without its faults and of particular concern is the overall value of the game as a purchase: At $60 the game offers what is admittedly an exceptional 20 hours of entertainment for a single play through. It may not be worth the full retail price, but one way or the other it begs to be played. Ignore the scores if you can; BioShock isn’t flawless but fortunately it doesn’t need to be. The value for this game lies not in the price of admission or the seamless technical experience or even the endless challenge it poses. The value—the joy—of this game is living, for a time, within the leaky walls of Rapture.

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Comments:

@Meiko: I agree that it’s a “can’t miss” title, and said as much. I’m not necessarily arguing that it should have shipped with some tacked-on multiplayer just to put a bullet point on the back of the box, I just wonder how one game can be held accountable for lacking modes or shipping with bugs or being “too easy” while another is not.

What I find interesting is that video games reviews feel uneven in precisely this way because perfect scores are so incredibly rare. Maybe part of it is that the typical scale is 1-10 while other media like music and movies often operate on a four-point (or star) scale where top marks are given at least somewhat frequently. Four-star movies or albums need not be literally flawless and are, as you suggest, simply “can’t miss.” I just don’t see why video game reviews operate under different rules that expose this kind of illogic.

If you look at some of the good movie critics (NY Times, New Yorker, Washington Post), their reviews don’t operate on a scale at all.  I don’t see why the video game review has to be such a slave to the number rating.

In fact, it might help the medium in its quest for acceptance as a serious artform if the average game review didn’t read like a checklist of the different elements in the game with an arbitrary number tacked on at the bottom.

Down with number ratings, I say.


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