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July 7, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»bioshock

Against the Current

Although it took a little while to get to it, and it's also taking me a while to get into its rhythms, I'm now comfortably working my way through Bioshock on the Xbox 360. It's the kind of game I'd prefer to play on my laptop, but 2K's insistence on SecuROM copy protection pretty much nixed that idea--astonishingly, even the Steam Bioshock install includes Sony's SecuROM, despite being already wrapped in a layer of less-offensive DRM. Maybe they just decided it wasn't annoying enough.

Obviously the game is a polished, well-crafted experience. The voice acting is particularly high in quality, while the enemy character designs are relatively lackluster. I'm not convinced that the plot's as brilliant that it's been made out to be, but it's good. Still, I keep finding myself struggling against a general sense of confinement, as if parts of Bioshock were chopped off to make it fit a console mentality. I had thought people were complaining needlessly when they called it "dumbed-down," but now I'm not so sure.

Take, for example, the almost inexplicable lack of an inventory screen. Bioshock, unlike its spiritual inspirations in the System Shock series, doesn't provide any way to manage the various objects that the player picks up in Rapture. Consumable objects are used right away, and there's no real limit on the number of weapons that can be carried. I don't really miss those "features" since cramming sprites into a grid and then rearranging them constantly is not my idea of a good time. What is limited, however, are the active and passive genetic powers accumulated during the game, and these can only be swapped out at specific Gene Bank stations. More importantly, the only place to view any equipped gene tonics is at the Gene Bank.

This is clumsy--noticeably clumsy, given the rest of the game's polish. I could understand gameplay reasons for forcing the player to stick with only a few tonics at a time, but why can't I see what I have installed? My memory only goes so far--what if I want to check what I'm currently using, since it's not always instantly obvious? What if (and this happens often to me) I haven't been playing in a while, and I've simply forgotten where I left off? When I first ran into this problem, I spent several minutes flipping between tabs on the help menu, thinking that I had just missed it. But no: there's no way to see what tonics are currently in use, except by trudging over to a Gene Bank, wherever that might be. It's amazing that a game offering instant reloads, hints, and even a guided arrow for navigation (which I quite like, honestly, in this kind of story-driven affair) doesn't offer a simple status screen.

Speaking of clumsy, how about that hacking mini-game? Somewhere out there, Pipe Dreams enthusiasts weep tears of joy. The rest of us curse at the screen. It's not that it's hard to play. It's that the mechanics of it--moving around a grid, constantly smacking the A button to uncover tiles and then swapping them with tiles in other, non-contiguous positions--are simply not well-suited to a gamepad. With a mouse cursor, the game is tolerable, if only because it's so much faster. Even giving gamers a faux-cursor controlled by the analog stick, a la Chu Chu Rocket would have helped. But as it is, it's a horrible frenzy of d-pad tapping that's out of sync with the rest of the game's navigation.

Which reminds me: the controls. Granted, I am a hostile audience for console shooters. I have joked, in the past, that people who enjoy playing first-person games with a gamepad are heathens who should be sent to live in a godforsaken wasteland like Montana, far from the rest of civilization. Bioshock works hard to keep the process painless--it boasts an auto-aim that will lock on and follow a target for a moment, as well as a turning speed that increases if the right stick is held left or right for a moment.

But these are all just lipstick on the pig. They're patches meant to make up for the fact that it's still tremendously cumbersome to control a first-person viewpoint using a thumbstick, and no amount of tweaking will change that. The gamepad alters the entire feel of things: instead of being able to whip your virtual head around naturally, you're constrained to something more tank-like and plodding. Environmental awareness is lowered, and reaction time increases. It feels like being back in 1998, playing Duke3D with the arrow keys.

(I will say that the one thing I wish PC shooters could steal from consoles is analog movement control. Going from a silent creep to a full-out run on a keyboard has the same jerky rhythm and mechanical feel as shifting gears in a car. Likewise, the ability to vary the strafe-to-run ratio on the fly gives extra fluidity to console movement. I suspect that many console gamers use this extra flexibility in maneuvering to make up for the deficiences of thumbstick aiming, but it's not enough for me.)

Fine! you may say. Take your whining and play it on your PC, if you're so frustrated by it. Hey, I'd like to, obviously. But 2K has decided, by putting SecuROM protection on the disc, that I can't trust their product to behave on my laptop. I'm just not willing to let it install an admin-level service, or to prevent me from using diagnostic tools like the Sysinternals kit. Indeed, I find it both suspicious and depressing that the programs I use to find and fix problems--and thereby keep the computer healthy for active use, including gaming--are systematically undermined by this copy protection.

This is a vicious cycle, as I've noted before. Clearly, between the two platforms, the publisher has decided to make one of them a second-class citizen. Given the choice, of course I'm going to play Bioshock on a console, where I don't have to worry about activations or rootkits, even though I find the gaming experience to be negatively affected. And when the PC version sells relatively little compared to Xbox sales, 2K will claim piracy, and use this justification to continue adding intrusive copy protection to their titles.

Other than that, the game's not bad.

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