Monday, April 13, 2015

System Shock 2 is Infinitely Better than BioShock

System Shock 2 and BioShock are essentially the exact same game, except one has a cyberpunk theme set in space, and the other has a steampunk theme set underwater. Both are first-person shooters with a wide range of guns and multiple types of ammunition; both feature RPG-style upgrades for character abilities and weapons; both include a variety of "magic" spells that can be used in conjunction with firearms; both feature a setting that's been ruined by horrific disaster; both feature environmental storytelling with audio logs and ghostly apparitions; and both have an important, memorable twist revelation in the story. They even have virtually identical level/plot progression. Those are just the main overarching similarities; when you examine them closer, you notice a ton of smaller, individual things that make appearances in both games, like vending machines and respawn chambers.

If BioShock is basically a carbon copy of the esteemed System Shock 2, and is developed by many of the same influential people who made SS2, with the benefit of a much stronger engine and eight years of industry advancements, then BioShock should be a definite improvement over the classic masterpiece, right? If nothing else, it should at least be "as good as" SS2, right? Everyone had high hopes that it would recapture the magic of SS2 and put a halt to the growing trend of simplifying and "dumbing down" mainstream games. BioShock was indeed a smarter, more complex shooter than virtually anything else on the market at the time -- hence why it was so immensely popular -- but the sad fact is that BioShock itself is merely a simplified, dumbed-down version of System Shock 2.

This article isn't going to be a strict review of BioShock, because it's kind of moot at this point. It's been out long enough, and was popular enough that I'm sure you already know everything you need to know about it. Rather, this is going to be more of a description of what's wrong with BioShock, with comparisons between System Shock 2 and BioShock. For a little more context going into this article, consider reading my recent review of System Shock 2 before continuing.

The Story

I'm pretty sure BioShock aspires to tell a more profound philosophical story than SS2's pulp space-horror narrative, but I just didn't find it as engaging. The main problem with BioShock's story is that you spend virtually the entire game doing busy work for other people, for no real benefit of your own. As soon as you arrive in Rapture, Atlas sends you to rescue his family; then another guy's making you fetch him a camera; then a woman wants you to fetch her a flower; then someone else wants you to kill three other people; and so on. In SS2, every single mission pertains directly to your own survival as you try to get the ship working again and stop all the catastrophes occurring around you. Even though you have an external voice telling you what to do all the time, Polito is in the same boat as you are -- you're in it together. She feels like a friendly ally, more so than the random strangers randomly barking you around in BioShock.

Perhaps it's just me, but I find it really difficult to care about helping random strangers whom I've only ever seen for a few seconds on the other side of bulletproof glass. "Dear man whom I've never seen before and never really interacted with; I'm sorry that your family, whom I've never seen, heard, or interacted with, was killed by another man whom I've never seen and never interacted with." As tragic as gruesome murders really are, the sad fact is no one sheds a tear reading about them in the news, unless you knew the victim. BioShock never endears you to any of its characters because they're just plot devices; I don't care about helping Atlas, and I don't care about killing Andrew Ryan, which makes the entire game feel like an obligatory chore. Besides, you voluntarily choose to go to Rapture, and there's no reason that you can't just go back to the lighthouse to wait for rescue (besides the game simply not letting you), which makes everything feel extrinsically forced upon you.

In addition, the audio logs don't make a whole lot of sense in an alternate history 50s society. Do you really expect me to believe that common, ordinary citizens carry around these giant tape recorders, everywhere they go, just so they can record a 30 second diary entry and then leave it in some inexplicable place for me to find? The audio logs work in SS2 because it makes sense that important scientists and military officers in a technologically advanced society, on an experimental ship's maiden voyage, would be recording their thoughts and observations. After all, we've been used to hearing audio logs in science fiction ever since Captain Kirk first uttered the words "Captain's log, Stardate 1312.4" in the 1960s. System Shock 2's audio logs feel natural, and the places you find them also make sense.

Finally, I find it really annoying how much of BioShock's story is told through cutscenes that wrestle all control of the game from you, or moments when you're stuck-in-place, unable to move, but allowed to look around at your own leisure. It's like the game is needy and insecure about me possibly walking away from its story presentation and missing something important, to which I can only respond "make an interesting story that I'll want to stay put and pay attention to, and you won't have this problem." I realize this idea of losing control of your character kind of fits in with the game's theme and twist reveal, but that feels more like a lame excuse -- an afterthought -- than a proper justification. Apart from the very beginning and very end of SS2, you were always in control of your own character, which helped a lot in keeping you immersed in the game world.

The Atmosphere

System Shock 2 was known for its thick survival-horror atmosphere. In SS2, you were all alone, with the lone exception of Polito's voice guiding you through the Von Braun. That feeling of isolation is crucial for making the player feel vulnerable, especially in light of the game's constant, randomly spawning enemies -- you never know what to expect, when and where, which instills a living, breathing feeling into the Von Braun. Every enemy encounter in BioShock, on the other hand, feels heavily scripted, like the game is calling attention to itself: "Look at this cool, dramatic scene we've created! Isn't it awesome?" That, to me, just makes the game feel phony and artificial, when I can see the script unfolding before me.

BioShock also takes away from the survival-horror atmosphere by constantly surrounding you with other characters, who incessantly talk to you over the radio and send you on random, trivial fetch quests. There's no feeling of isolation, with other people constantly barking in your ear, and yet you only ever see people on the other side of bullet proof glass, or hear them on your radio; you never truly get to interact with any of the characters, which keeps them from feeling like real people. So, you don't get the feeling of isolation, and you don't get the feeling of meaningful character interaction, either, so the game fails either way you look at it.

System Shock 2 allowed you to feel sympathy for the former crewmembers that had become assimilated by The Many; their rambling cries of "kill me" and "I'm sorry" were downright disturbing, if you really thought about it, and the game's overall variety of weird alien enemies allowed for a fear of the unknown, of not knowing what you'd encounter up ahead. BioShock, on the other hand, features only two types of enemies -- Big Daddies and Splicers. Neither of these are inherently frightening, since Big Daddies are entirely passive, and the Splicers are just ordinary, mundane humans. I don't feel any sympathy for the Splicers because they're portrayed as a bunch of drugged-up psychos, as opposed to victims of a horrible infestation, and they're just not that interesting anyway.

I also don't get the feeling of Rapture ever being an actual, lived-in city. Despite all of the audio logs, and the posters, and the signage, and the ghosts, which are clearly trying to depict what life was like before the rapture hit Rapture, the design of the city itself doesn't seem to have much meaningful structure. Every area feels like it was designed purely from a gameplay standpoint, and then had all of the "atmosphere" stuff pasted on after the fact. I just find it so difficult to believe that people actually lived here, and that this was a fully functioning society, whereas the Von Braun in SS2 makes logical sense, feeling much like I'd expect an actual spaceship would be designed. That makes the events in SS2 feel that much more plausible, and therefore immersive, because the environment is more convincing.

The Level Design / Exploration

The thing about SS2 is that each deck of the Von Braun felt like an entire hub, focused around the central elevator system. Like navigating a network of underground tree roots, you always had some option of where to go; usually, you had two or three paths available to you at any given moment, which would intersect in different spots and link up with other areas in different ways. You always had a particular destination you were trying to reach as part of the main objective, but you were given the empowering freedom to figure out how to get there on your own, just by exploring and figuring out what leads where, and you were often given the choice to ignore the main mission objective and explore elsewhere for optional content and bonus goodies. You were always free to backtrack to anywhere you'd explored previously, and in fact the game sometimes required it, which made the Von Braun feel much more open than its cramped corridors would have you believe.

The vast majority of areas/maps in BioShock consist of linear corridors and sequences of rooms that force you down a single path, offering you very little to no opportunity to branch out and explore off the main path. When you look at the maps, their design gives the illusion of complex interconnected networks, but the game frequently closes doors behind you that lock you out of backtracking, and arbitrarily restricts areas with inexplicably locked doors that inexplicably open when it's time to go that way. It may look like branching paths, but the reality is there's only one route through the entire game. It's insulting that the game doesn't trust me enough to figure things out on my own, since it feels the need to ensure I can't possibly screw anything up or get lost, by restricting where I can go and what I can do.

Since BioShock strips the player of any kind of meaningful inventory system, there's even less reward and incentive to explore off the main path. Not that you can in the first place, but the lack of inventory removes the fun satisfaction of having to make important decisions when you find an interesting new item. A lot of stuff you can find in SS2 is completely useless junk, like coffee mugs, potted plants, and magazines (though you can click to read about the magazines if you desire), while other stuff has situational utility, like implants, stat-boosting hypos, research chemicals, and so on, and it's up to you to determine what stuff is most important to you, and to find a way to make everything you want fit in your inventory. If you want to carry multiple weapons to be prepared for any and every enemy you might encounter, that comes at the cost of other things that might prove useful in other situations.

In BioShock, you can carry every single type of weapon and ammunition without restriction, apart from arbitrary limits on how much of each ammo type you can carry. You can pickup and carry as many medkits and EVE hypos as you want, up to the arbitrary limit for each one, without affecting your ability to carry anything else. You can pick up as many tonics, plasmids, and crafting materials as you can find without restriction because they all disappear into hammer space the moment you obtain them. Everything else -- like snacks, bandages, coffee -- is consumed the moment you pick it up. So basically, there are no consequences for exploring and managing your inventory, because you simply pick up everything you find, without any consideration whatsoever, until you reach the arbitrary limit on that particular item. It's not a matter of "do I want this, and can I make room for it?"; you just mindlessly press the action button on everything, and the game determines for you if you can carry it or not.

The Role-Playing

Continuing this trend, there are no skill or stat requirements for anything you do in BioShock. In SS2, stronger weapons required more advanced skill training to use; more difficult security devices and locked doors (which contained more valuable loot) couldn't be hacked at all unless your hacking skill was high enough; psionic abilities required you to unlock individual tiers before investing points in individual abilities. Like the inventory, this required you to make tough decisions about how to allocate limited skill points (aka cyber modules), because you simply ccouldn't be a jack of all trades -- there just weren't enough cyber modules for that. You had to role-play, specializing in certain fields and finding creative ways to work around your character's weaknesses, meaning there were definite consequences for how you chose to play the game, with different playstyles and alternate solutions to most every situation.

BioShock lets you be effective at everything -- hacking, guns, magic -- without consequence, since there are no requirements for anything and you get enough Adam (BioShock's version of cyber modules) to buy any tonic or plasmid you could possibly want. It even lets you be super-effective at whatever you want, whenever you want, because you can swap out tonics and plasmids for free depending on the situation and your own finicky whims. Whereas SS2 felt like a legitimate RPG with meaningful character development and permanent resource allocation, BioShock feels instead like an action game with a perk system, which strips the game of a lot of its depth, choice, and replay value, considering it doesn't really matter how you choose to play the game because you're equipped for every possibility.

I'm also not fond of the way BioShock distributes its character upgrade resources. In SS2, you were rewarded with cyber modules as you advanced through the main quest, and could earn extra by exploring discreet, hidden areas of the ship. This made it feel genuinely rewarding to earn cyber modules, since it was associated with progress in the main mission, and since it was easily possible to miss cyber modules if you weren't thorough enough in exploration. In BioShock, you earn Adam through a shallow, gimmicky, binary morality system that has you killing innocent little girls or rescuing them from their torment. There's basically no risk of ever missing out on a little sister, since they always seem to show up along your one and only path through the game, and there's really no weight behind the moral choice since your rewards are practically the same no matter what you choose, except for a couple of unique plasmids you can only get by rescuing them.

Even things like research -- used to learn more about enemies while gaining combat bonuses against them -- got massively simplified in BioShock, to the point that it's no longer satisfying. In SS2, you had to collect biological samples of alien enemies (which took up inventory space) and take them to a storeroom to get the chemicals necessary to start the research (which took up inventory space), and then let the research sit on a timer until it was ready. It required effort, limited resources, and a certain character skill level. In BioShock, you just repeatedly spam photographs of enemies for instant results, which ironically takes more time and effort than seeking out the correct chemicals in SS2, and doesn't even provide you with an analyzed research report that would let you learn more about the game's lore and backstory, if you chose to read it.

The Difficulty

Streamlining games to make them less of a cumbersome chore is one thing, but BioShock takes it a step further and simplifies the difficulty, making the entire game significantly easier. First aid kits now heal instantly, as opposed to over time, so there's less danger of actually dying. Vita chambers are now totally free to use, and don't require you to find and activate them before being able to use them. Enemy respawn has been reduced significantly, thereby lightening the demands on your ammo and restorative items, which are excessively available anyway. Add in things like the quest arrow that constantly points you towards your objective, the fact that usable items now shimmer so you can't possibly miss them, and tutorial messages that pop up 10 hours into the game that remind you to "SEARCH containers for LOOT" just in case you forgot how to perform a basic function that's existed in games for decades, and you've got a game that bears practically zero challenge.

I played SS2 on normal difficulty and experienced a fairly satisfying difficulty curve: the beginning was tough, and forced me to strategically work my way through the Von Braun so as not to waste valuable resources. I played BioShock on "hard" (the hardest difficulty you can select until you beat the game and unlock "Survivor" mode) and reached a point halfway through when I had maxed out every possible resource you can acquire, at which point exploration became completely pointless and unrewarding since I couldn't pick up any of the stuff I came across. The only time I ever felt challenged was when I chose to encounter a Big Daddy, but even these fights became childishly simple once I figured out certain combinations. They're really just bullet sponges, and the common splicers, which comprise 90% of enemy encounters, offer no resistance whatsoever.

Playing BioShock in hard mode is basically required to make it offer a "normal" level of challenge, and yet, even then, it's still too easy. The thing that made SS2 so satisfying was the thick tension that came with overcoming the brutally harsh survival system, with extremely limited ammo and healing items, weapons that deteriorated with use and which needed to be repaired and maintained, status conditions like toxins and radiation that required special equipment to bypass and antidotes to cure, and the respawning enemies which presented a constant drain on your supplies. I get no satisfaction from overcoming anything in BioShock, because the game is so adamant about holding your hand and ensuring that you see all of its content, which makes the game kind of boring and unrewarding to play when success and progress don't feel earned.

The Technical Stuff

Finally, I find that BioShock pales in comparison to SS2 even on a technical level. Sure, BioShock has much better graphics, but good graphics do not a good game make. System Shock 2, with the compatibility updates applied to the GOG and Steam versions, ran flawlessly on my modern PC; BioShock wouldn't play any in-game sound and required a work-around to fix, crashed numerous times, and frequently (and randomly) reverted all of my settings back to default. In BioShock, I encountered tons of random physics glitches that sent objects flying across the room like they'd been hit by a freight train after only casually being bumped, items that bounced forever across a room defying gravity, subtitles that got stuck on the display, freezing stutters, and times when the game went completely unresponsive.

In addition, saving and loading takes a much longer time in BioShock, and the game forces an unbearably narrow FOV on you, which requires an ini change to fix. Music doesn't play after loading a save file, which is particularly problematic in one scene when a person is supposed to be on stage playing a piano. Even gameplay functions got stripped out -- you can't lean around corners any more, and there's no jumping and climbing, which turns exploration into an even more shallow and boring matter of following the dotted line, so to speak. Guns used to have multiple firing modes, like three-round burst or single-fire, which got cut out in favor of each gun only having one basic function.

The conclusion

BioShock retains nearly everything that made System Shock 2 such a unique, memorable game, in some form or another, but in its effort to streamline and simplify the gameplay (presumably to increase its appeal with mainstream audiences), it lost a lot of SS2's grit. I like it when games ask me to accomplish things on my own, when they present a clear possibility of failure, and when they make it clear how much of an impact my decisions have on how well I do in the game, and as well as how I play the game. BioShock removed these important aspects; the game holds my hand too much, and I don't feel as if my decisions matter, because there are virtually no consequences for anything I do in the game. That, to me, makes BioShock a pretty shallow, boring, straightforward game that lacks the depth, nuance, and complexity of its predecessor.

The thing that's even more interesting is that I have a better memory of specific areas, enemies, and moments in SS2 than I do things in BioShock, despite having played BioShock twice, and having played BioShock more recently. Perhaps the cardinal sin of video game design, I simply felt bored playing BioShock, whereas I was intensely engaged in every moment of SS2. An unknown source made the following observation once, and it's so true that I'm going to repeat it here: despite all the similarities to System Shock 2, BioShock ultimately feels more like an underwater Condemned with magic fireballs than System Shock


  1. I played BioShock with the quest arrow, item shimmer, tutorial pop ups, and vita chambers turned off and it was so much better. I never beat the game nor do I intend to. The second game was a gimmicky cash in on the first one (which I didn't play for more than 2 hours) and the third one was basically an interactive movie (I finished it eventually but I had to force myself into it for the last half).

    I don't own System Shock 2 yet. I will get it eventually, but I'm in no rush. Although, respawning enemies always annoyed me, but I think I can get used to that. For science.

  2. So glad you're posting so regularly now! It hasn't been like this since, what, 2013?

  3. Yahtzee pretty much summed it up for me: "It isn't bad, just shallower than it wad advertised. I suppose if you got the console version and are used to insipid corridor shooters, then BioShock will seem like the shit. But if you're a PC gamer with more complex games on offer, then you're in for a kick in the balls. Maybe a gentler kick in the balls than most. An extremely pretty, well executed kick in the balls, with the best of intentions, but at the end of the day you're still walking funny."