Archive for the 'Shooter' Category

Combat: Bosses

I still haven’t reached Combat‘s thirtieth and presumably final level. I think I’ve got up to level 29, but that one’s a real killer. Since all I likely have ahead of me is the end boss, let’s take a look at the other bosses I’ve encountered so far.

The first one you encounter is a spinning octagonal lump that bounces around inside a large square arena. It periodically extends four symmetrically-arranged arms radially until they hit the edge, then sweeps them around for a while, forcing you to circle around with them if you don’t want to get hurt. Each arm ends in a clearly-shootable pod, which explodes, destroying the arm, after a little persistence — the easiest approach is to follow one along an edge so you can keep it lined up with your gun. After all four arms are gone, they’re replaced with guns, which you also have to destroy one by one. It’s pretty straightforward.

Level 10 puts us in a sort of maze — not a complicated one, but large, in the sense that the hallways are wide and long. An armored contraption shaped sort of like a minibus patrols this maze, shooting barrages of unusually large bullets and moving far faster than you can go without a speed boost powerup (of which there are several to be found). Fighting it involves shooting from a distance and running away a lot — the temptation is to face off squarely against it, because that works on most enemies, but it’s just the wrong approach here. This is the boss that guards the first automatic save point, and I remember having a very difficult time of it at first, because I couldn’t tell if I was damaging it or not. Unlike the previous boss, it had no obvious vulnerable spots, and no isolated weapon bits to shoot off. All I could do is keep on pelting it and hope that I was having an effect.

The third boss is actually two, a pair of modestly-oversized tanks running on concentric tracks around a solid obstacle, circling faster than your tank can move. The floor drops away on either side of the tracks, as well as between them; there are only a few spots where you can stand with no danger of being run over, and if you just sit motionless on one of those spots, you’ll just get shot instead. However, killing either one of the two tanks means that you can move to its track and safely dodge fire from the other. This is one of the less-satisfying boss levels, mainly because it was so hard to avoid getting hurt that it didn’t seem worth bothering, but also in part because the enemies here just don’t seem as impressive as the others.

The fourth boss is essentially a very big turret, sitting in the void, stationary but rotating to face you as you move around on a U-shaped ledge. It has multiple guns, some firing multiple sprays of scattering bullets, some firing bombs that do splash damage, and apparently some firing souped-up jets, themselves capable of shooting at you. (This last touch was proabably necessary to keep the fight from getting monotonous. Without the jets, the focus of the action would always be on the turret, whether aiming at it or dodging it.) Mainly you pass this stuff by just constantly keeping in motion, which is a good idea in most situations anyway. After the last of the conventional guns goes down, the turret’s outer casing falls off to reveal the last line of defense: a sweeping beam weapon. Just like in a whole bunch of vertical-scrolling shooters, it takes a little while to power up, and then fires continuously for long enough to corner you if you didn’t rush to the other side when you heard the about-to-fire-beam-weapon audio cue.

Level 25 puts you in an open arena with a few unnavigable holes. The boss, however, it puts outside this arena. Just as the level 20 boss was a very large turret, this boss is a very large jet. It goes through a cycle of several attack patterns: zooming across the battlefield to ram you, summoning smaller jets, firing its scatter-guns, laying a line of bombs, using the same sort of sweeping beam as in the end of level 20. The scatter-guns can be destroyed individually, but this just knocks that attack out of the cycle. The peculiar thing is that it’s only shootable at certain moments in its routine. It only descends to tank-level when the attack it’s attempting makes it necessary.

My guess is that the final boss will be a massive tank, because the ending is the time to reiterate the game’s main theme, especially if you’ve been going with variations for a while. But that doesn’t tell me much about what the fight will be like. Because really, when you come down to it, the main thing that distinguishes the boss fights in this game from each other isn’t the bosses so much as the terrain, and the boss’s relation to it. That’s the thing that determines how the player can respond to them, whether it’s possible to dodge or hide, etc.

Combat: Third Batch

I described the look of Combat as Tron-like, but the first two batches of levels are relatively subdued about it. The floors are concrete-textured and the walls look a bit like painted metal, just laid out in a blatantly non-representational way and floating in space. Starting at level 21, however, the game takes on an even more self-consciously artificial tone: the environment is all flat black with faint grid lines, brightly-colored edges and occasional stripes, like neon lights. I wish I had a screenshot to share — the game is resistant to the usual ways of producing them, probably consuming all keyboard input before the OS gets it. At any rate, it’s a striking look, reminiscent of wireframe models, but also basically a look we’ve seen before, in Tron and elsewhere.

The third batch also ramps up the difficulty a great deal. I managed to get through level 20 on the same day that I got through level 10, but progress through the remainder is slower, and requires more adaptation to special situations. But before I describe them, I should describe the types of enemy.

Before level 21, there were basically four categories of enemies. The most basic ones are missile-like things that spawn, launch themselves at you in a straight line, and explode when they hit a wall or when you shoot them. Next, there are jet-like things that glide about within a plane and can go off the edge without falling; they try to damage you by bumping into you, but tend to go zooming past if you keep moving. Like the missiles, they can be destroyed with a single hit. These two types form the main grunt forces of the game. Next level up, and relatively rare, are the enemy tanks, which come in various varieties, some faster, some with greater firepower, some with more hit points. And finally there are stationary turrets, which are best taken out from a long distance.

Level 21’s high concept is that it’s highly constrained. You’re in a small arena where multiple waves of jets spawn and must be dealt with from close up. After the first few waves, they’re joined by a new type of enemy, a roving bomb that homes in on you and damages you if you’re too close when you destroy it. This quickly becomes the most annoying type of enemy in the game, the sort of thing that you’d genocide if you were playing Nethack.

There’s one level based on the concept of lack of railings. Throughout the game, some areas have low walls around them that your tank bounces off of, and others just let you drop off into the void. So there’s really nothing new in the level I’m describing, except its eagerness to make you fall. There are infinitely-respawning roving bomb units that you can only get past by moving quickly, but they’re located on narrow catwalks where it’s dangerous to move quickly. Also, it’s on this level that we learn that the explosions from the bombs are capable of pushing you short distances.

If I sound like I’m griping, let me offset it by describing one level I quite like. It’s all one big open space, except for a walled-off room in the middle where the exit portal spawns after you’ve survived long enough. In this room, dozens of those jets are spawning all the time, along with an occasional tank. There are power-ups scattered about, including the one that lets you fire three shots at a time in different directions, the one that makes your shots bounce off walls (which can be used in conjunction with the three-at-a-time one), and, most importantly, the one that grants you temporary invulnerability. The power-ups are so crucial, and time out so quickly, that you’re constantly seeking more of them, which means you spend your time zooming all around, sometimes invulnerable. It’s a nicely chaotic battle, a big adrenalin surge in a very adrenalin-oriented game. This game got poor reviews, but here, it satisfies.

Combat: Progress and Regress

I finally made some permanent progress in Combat (2001 Infogrames remake). There was none in my previous two sessions. This game doesn’t have a save/load mechanism, and to a player starting from the beginning (and who hasn’t read the manual thoroughly), it’s not at all clear that there’s any saved state between sessions at all. In fact, beating the first ten levels (including two boss fights) permanently opens up a passage in the starting area (like the passages that let you access the different worlds in the original Quake) that lets you skip to level 11 in the future, and likewise beating level 20 lets you skip to level 21. But there’s no recognition of this in the game itself, no notification of any kind. Only after your game ends (presumably in defeat) and you start a new game do you see that you don’t have to start over from level 1 again. And you’re probably not going to see it immediately. You’re probably not eager to launch into a new session immediately, given that you’ve just got through 10 levels in a single session, something that takes about a half an hour and leaves your hands wrecked, and that you don’t know the first time that you won’t have to start over from level 1 again.

It didn’t come as a surprise to me this time, though, because I remember getting past level 10 in my original attempts at this game, years ago. And in fact now that I’ve gotten that far, I’ve also managed to keep going and breach the second checkpoint — apparently I’ve learned the basic skills needed by the game, and will probably finish it soon. (The main necessary skill, it seems, is assessing when you need to stand and clear the room of enemies and when you need to just make a break for the exit. Either approach is imperative sometimes.) But also, I’m kind of cheesing out. The options menu lets you choose whether you start with three or five lives, and whether your shields at full can withstand three or five hits. Both settings default to 3, and I’ve turned them both up to 5. Without this, I would be starting over from the beginning a lot more, and enjoying the game less (even if I would also be keenly honing my tank-battle skills in the process). But then, a more typical modern game would be giving me infinite lives, or, equivalently, a save/load feature, so all I’m really doing by selecting the easier options is bringing the game closer to being in line with today’s expectations.

Mind you, lives were already retro in 2001, when this game was released. Functionally, their purpose is to make the player start over from the beginning every once in a while and thus extend gameplay — a goal somewhat undermined by the checkpoints every 10 levels. But extending gameplay by making it more repetitive was more excusable in the old days, when games were fewer and shipped on less capacious media. The weird thing is that, although this is of course a deliberately retro game, the game it seeks to evoke isn’t that kind of retro. The concepts I’m describing here are completely outside of Atari Combat‘s ludic vocabulary. In this context, limited lives are both retro and whatever the opposite of “retro” is. They fit comfortably in neither time.

Combat: The Luxury of Style

The 2001 remake of Combat could have easily gone another way: attempted realism. Given the theme of tanks, the developers could have tried to make a tank simulator. Any commercial remake would have had to expand greatly on the original in order to justify the price they intended to charge for it, and going for a detailed depiction of realistic military hardware would be one way to do that.

But they didn’t. They instead chose to make it about videogame tanks, blatantly unreal things that exist nowhere outside of software, gliding around on a sequence of floating platforms and ramps that have no history, serve no purpose but to host tank battles. These tanks don’t even have treads. They’re hovercraft, essentially, zipping along on some kind of glowing antigravity engines. This means that they’re capable of strafing left and right — often a useful technique, I’m finding, as it lets you dodge fire from an enemy you’re facing and at the same time saturate the area in the general direction of said enemy with bullets. (The bullets themselves are essentially sparklers.) You can’t aim your gun independent of the direction you’re facing, but at least you can face in a different direction than you’re moving. Not just by strafing, either: you can build up momentum and then spin around without affecting your trajectory. Sometimes the game feels more like Spacewar or Asteroids than Combat.

There’s a bit of a paradox here. The original Combat, and the arcade game it was based on, were, presumably, designed to give an experience that was the closest thing to a realistic tank battle that their programmers could create on the hardware at hand. The end result was highly stylized, but it was stylized by necessity. It isn’t until you have hardware that’s capable of a more realistic simulation that it becomes possible to choose a stylized approach, and this makes the stylization more conspicuous, even though in absolute terms it’s less extreme than in the original. I recall observing something similar with respect to the King’s Quest series.


I recently read Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost’s Racing the Beam, a book about the Atari 2600, with a particular focus on how the games written for it were affected by the limitations and affordances of its rather odd hardware design. I highly recommend it to anyone who reads this blog. The Atari 2600 was my childhood console, and reading about it made me nostalgic enough to pull out a game written specifically to prey on this very nostalgia.

The original Combat was the first cartridge to be bundled with the 2600, and, along with Pong, one of the two games that the platform was specifically designed around. Apparently it was an adaptation and extension of an arcade game called Tank, although the cartridge also featured airplane modes. It was a 2D shooter that required two players — there was no expectation of computer-controlled opponents in those days. Matches lasted exactly two minutes and 16 seconds — I have no idea why they chose that specific number — at the end of which whoever got the most hits on the other guy won. Some playfields had obstacles that blocked movement and fire, others were completely open. It was all very simple and abstract: the tanks were single-colored and blocky, the walls even moreso.

But that’s not what I’m playing. I’m playing the 2001 remake, part of the wave of “classic” game remakes that hit the stores around that time. And of all the remakes I’ve played, this is probably the one that has the least to do with the game it’s based on. It’s a single-player level-based 3D shooter, where the goal on each level is to reach an exit point. The designers kept the tanks (and ditched the airplanes), they adapted the simple abstractness into a sort of Tron-like stylization, and they kept the complete lack of backstory (a laudable decision, and one made by too few of these remakes). Everything else about the original, they just ignored.

And honestly, if it had been up to me, I’d probably have made similar decisions. I suppose that Team Fortress 2 has proved that pure time-limited PvP combat is still viable, if you’re willing to spend years honing it. But this game was made with the constraint of trying to be recognizable as Combat, and that must be difficult for a modern game. Even the most formulaic adaptation possible (which this one is pretty close to being) has to add an awful lot. Heck, a formulaic adaptation has to add more than a clever one, because the original was made with a mindset so far-removed from where the game industry eventually wound up going. I’ve joked before that the general formula for the remakes churned out during this period was to just support 3D acceleration in some way and add power-ups, but the original Combat doesn’t just lack 3D and power-ups, it lacks basic concepts like levels, and lives, and an ending.

Bioshock: Would you kindly finish the game?

I’ve cited superhero comics as an influence on Bioshock already, but the single most superhero-like moment in the game comes when you start catching up to Atlas, and he blocks your progress by hefting and throwing massive pieces of architecture at you, and striking an Action Comics #1 pose to do it. I suppose he has plasmids that I don’t — I can’t even lift so much as a brick except by telekinesis. 1Telekinesis in this game, by the way, is an obvious imitation of Half-Life 2‘s gravity gun. Not that I necessarily want whatever he’s been taking. By the time of your final boss fight, all the splicing has turned him into something monstrous, resembling a living version of that Atlas statue.

Mind you, the player character has his own brush with monstrosity. The penultimate level comes up with an excuse to get the player character to disguise himself as a Big Daddy — or possibly actually become one. This is a multi-part quest: you get the suit here, the boots there, the voice-box that produces those whalesong-like cries another place. Atlas sends you taunting messages warning about the consequences of what you’re doing, but it isn’t until you’re well into the process that you start finding reasons to believe that it’s not reversible. An audio log describes how the suit doesn’t work unless it’s bonded to the internal organs, replacing the skin. The voice-box is installed with a vicious-looking device that could plausibly be replacing your larynx. You naturally start to wonder just what you’re doing to yourself, what you’re giving up. It all leads into an escort mission, protecting a Little Sister (or, more accurately, a little girl who used to be a Little Sister) as she makes her rounds, and it’s easy to think “Is this how it’s going to be from now on for the rest of my life?”

Or maybe it's a new sort of stealth diving suit that allows the Big Daddies to blend in.But then, the game isn’t consistent about its presentation of your new status. Your first-person view has the circular window of a Big Daddy’s helmet superimposed on it (with some nice distortion effects at the edges), but your hands, when visible, show no such alteration. And when you go into the final boss fight, any sign or memory of the terrible possibilities just goes away. I can understand why they’d want a happy ending here (even though they miss out on a chance for a really memorably dark one), but I would have liked at least a word acknowledging the implications of the previous section.

Looking at a walkthrough afterward to find out what I’d missed, I saw one that concluded with the words “Congratulations, Rapture is saved!” I can only assume that this was put in as a matter of habit, part of the general walkthrough formula, because it’s flabbergasting in its wrongness. Your struggle towards the end is to save the outside world from a super-powered Frank Fontaine, or, if you’re playing the Sith path, to seize his Adam for yourself. Rapture is beyond saving. Its founder doesn’t even believe in salvation — not just in the religious sense, but in that he doesn’t believe in altruistic acts. And when you come down to it, the story of this game is primarily the story of a collapse. That’s unusual in games, even though ruins are a common setting — usually they’re just a setting, and the focus is on the player’s reason for being there. In Bioshock, the player’s real reason for being there is intimately linked with the ongoing collapse.

And the cause of the collapse? Given the Objectivist window-dressing, the obvious way to read the game is as a warning against the consequences of that philosophy. But, as I noted before, that point is blunted by Fontaine’s involvement. Or is it? The rise of Atlas and his revolution was made possible by the large numbers of dissatisfied poor (who weren’t allowed to leave Rapture lest they betray the secret of its existence to the outside world), and is therefore a consequence of Ryan’s no-social-safety-net policy. Something was going to break; Fontaine simply rode the wave, and satisfied videogame conventions by providing the player with something to kill.

It’s been suggested that we can’t really blame Objectivism for what happened, because Ryan had abandoned so many of Objectivism’s core tenets: initiating the use of force, robbing people of their free will through genetic manipulation. But that’s kind of the point. Ryan’s project was idealistic, and Ryan was unable to sustain that idealism. Even the “No gods or kings” bit is implicitly betrayed from the beginning by the way city features are named: Apollo Square, Port Poseidon, etc. Back at the point when you confront him, it’s notable how defeated he already is, despite his earlier appearance of nigh-omnipotent control: locked in his bunker-like office, alone, unable to affect what’s going on outside, finally understanding your mission but unable to do anything about it. He orders you to kill him, using your command words. Some have said that this represents a kind of victory on his part, proving to you that you’re no more than a slave. But he could have proved that with any command. By ordering his own death, he desperately takes the only sort of control he can over his fate, and the fate of Rapture.

I suppose this is why we didn’t have a boss fight against Ryan. He’s the personification of a certain set of ideals, and of how they can go wrong. To turn him into a powerful figure who has to be fought, and to make it possible to lose that fight, would be to suggest that his ideals are still powerful, and undermine the theme of inevitable collapse. Instead, the end boss is Fontaine, personification of things not going as planned.

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1. Telekinesis in this game, by the way, is an obvious imitation of Half-Life 2‘s gravity gun.

Bioshock: Twists

Posting this a couple days late. I finally got up to (and substantially past) the point of long-anticipated revelations. So let’s talk plot, in a spoilery way.

But first, to provide a buffer for for those not wanting spoilers, let’s talk a bit about the function of revelations in a game. Mainly they give some shape to an experience that might otherwise feel homogeneous: instead of spending six hours shooting bad guys, for example, you spend four hours shooting bad guys while confused and seeking answers followed by two hours shooting bad guys with firm and definite purpose. Alternately, new facts can justify sudden changes in gameplay — learning the bad guys’ motivations, for example, could lead to fighting on their side. Bioshock has a little of both sorts. There’s a third sort I think I should mention, because I feel like I’ve been mentioning it a lot lately, what with all the horror games in this year’s IF Comp: the revelation of something that the player already knows but the player character doesn’t, usually something that’s going to make life awful for the protagonist once he knows it and which therefore excites tragic sympathy. (I suppose that the “My god, what is that thing?” moment is also an example of this, albeit a very clumsy one.) Bioshock is something of a horror game and something of a tragedy, but it doesn’t quite do this, or at least not for me: when I speak of long-anticipated revelations, I don’t mean that I knew in advance what the revelations were going to be. I just knew there were going to be revelations.

There are really two twists delivered nearly simultaneously: the truth about Atlas, and the truth about the player character. Like I said before, I was suspicious of Atlas the moment he started being helpful, and his callousness towards the Little Sisters made me even moreso, so I was pretty sure he was hiding something, but I didn’t know what. I had some baseless guesses — was he a pseudonym of Andrew Ryan, allowing him to play both sides? A Big Daddy that overcame its conditioning? I suppose someone cleverer than myself could have figured out the truth: you hear quite a lot about Frank Fontaine, about how he was a crime boss who wielded illegitimate control over Rapture by controlling the Adam supply until Ryan’s men killed him, shortly before Atlas came along and started his uprising. The thing is, the level where you start hearing about Fontaine is also the level where you start hearing about Ryan rounding up dissidents and imposing the death penalty in complete contradiction to his stated ideals (with the usual mealy-mouthed excuses you hear from any dictator). And not just dissidents, but smugglers. Smugglers, in a free-trade paradise? It doesn’t take long to learn (and be repeatedly, anviliciously reminded) that the contraband they were smuggling consisted of literature and other media considered dangerous to Rapture society, mainly Bibles. So Ryan comes off as simply power-hungry and paranoid, and it’s easy to draw the conclusion that Fontaine is just someone who he demonized because he didn’t want to share power, and probably fundamentally blameless. It didn’t even occur to me that he actually is the fulfillment of Ryan’s paranoid fantasies, a con man playing the public for saps, and devious enough to fake his own death and come back with an even better con when it all went bust. But now that he’s come clean and become my enemy, he’s positively determined to prove Ryan right, to make Rapture’s collapse into the effect of an evil outside influence rather than the inevitable result of its intrinsic flaws. It’s a conclusion that’s morally uncomfortable in roughly the same way as the documents released in the 1990s showing that there actually had been Soviet infiltration of the State Department when McCarthy said there was: some people are so wrong in their actions, you don’t want them to turn out to be right about anything. I have to remind myself that Andrew Ryan is still enough of a monster that he’d rather destroy Rapture’s oxygen supply than allow the city to fall into the hands of, well, anyone without his permission — that he once burned down a forest to keep it from being turned into a public park — that, indeed, he’s become the sort of Kurtz-like madman who hangs corpses on hooks outside his office as a warning to others.

The revelations about the player character, now. Every once in a while, throughout the game, you get flashes of memory, in the form of sepia photographs of unclear significance: a farmhouse, a small group of people — the PC and his parents, perhaps? Not entirely clear: they flash by too fast for you get a good look. But the flashes are accompanied by ominous sound effects, sometimes by distant screaming, which I think is generally horror-game shorthand for suppressed knowledge. So, as in those horror games I mentioned earlier, it was clear that there was some dire revelation brewing, but unlike most such situations, it wasn’t at all clear what it was going to be. Some connection to Rapture, I presumed — perhaps the plane crash somehow wasn’t an accident. I was righter than I suspected: the PC’s connection to Rapture is that he was genetically engineered in Rapture, grown to adulthood in a matter of hours and had false memories implanted in Rapture, for the specific purpose of a mission in Rapture. Apparently the command phrase “Would you kindly”, used frequently by Atlas in his communications, activates the PC’s mental conditioning, giving him commands that he can’t help but obey — which is to say, your mission objectives throughout the game. This is one of those things that makes me want to go back and play through the game again, or at least to review the messages available from within the game’s info menus, to hear all the dialogue with knowledge of what it really means. Did Sasha Cohen use the phrase, during the brief time when he took over as taskmaster? Did Atlas say it when telling me to kill the Little Sisters, the one order of his that I’ve disobeyed? When exactly did Andrew Ryan figure out what I was? For it’s Ryan who tells you the truth, when you finally confront him. He definitely starts off at least as clueless as the player: the first time he contacts you by radio, he asks if you’re CIA or KGB. But as you approach his lair, he makes comments about how you’re “not fully human”, which seemed at the time to simply be part of his free-men-vs-parasites rhetoric.

Shortly after this revelation, Dr. Tenenbaum removes the “Will you kindly” trigger, making it impossible for Fontaine to clean up loose ends just by saying “Will you kindly commit suicide”. He does activate some other failsafes that mix up the gameplay a bit, lowering your maximum health, and then, when you attempt to undo that, temporarily putting you into an unsettled state where you can’t control what plasmid you’re using at any given moment, changing it at random. (The game can even choose plasmids you haven’t purchased, which I suppose is a bug, but it’s also a nice way to give the player experience of stuff that might otherwise go unseen.) The funny thing is how little really changes. The trigger phrase was essentially an in-fiction justification for why tasks assigned to you by strangers are mandatory, and in particular for why you have to kill Ryan instead of just sitting down and talking to him. But even without the phrase, the rules of the game demand that you get your marching orders from someone — it just shifts that role from Atlas to Tenenbaum. “A man decides, a slave obeys”: Ryan repeats this several times in his final spiel. By that standard, the player is still a slave.

Speaking of in-game justifications, the game tries to use the same revelations to sell everything else that’s implausible about your success so far. You can face incredible odds and kill Big Daddies so much more easily than the locals (who certainly try) because you were designed to be a killing machine. You can bypass the security systems so easily because Andrew Ryan left genetically-keyed back doors for himself, and you were created using his DNA. Actually, at one point it’s stated that you have half his DNA, which suggests that the PC may not be just a vat-grown homunculus, but Ryan’s natural son (modulo enhancements and rapid growth). This would explain why Diane McClintock, Ryan’s girlfriend, remains such a major source of audio logs throughout the game, despite being such a minor figure in Rapture and in the story so far: she’s probably the PC’s mother. I’m getting ahead of myself here, mind you; I still have a couple of levels to go. But it’s nice to finally have a revelation that I’m anticipating.

Bioshock: Hacking

Hacking is a big enough part of Bioshock that it has an entire suite of genetic modifications dedicated to reducing its difficulty in various ways. You hack safes and combination locks on doors to open them. You hack security apparatus such as cameras and automated gun turrets to make them switch sides, attacking your enemies and leaving you alone. You hack vending machines to lower their prices (no, you can’t get them to just dump their entire inventory for free), or even to make them offer additional items, which doesn’t make a lot of in-world sense, but I’ll accept the benefits anyway. Hacking a health dispenser not only reduces its cost for you to use, it turns it into an anti-health dispenser for enemies, killing them when they attempt to use it, and for this reason alone is well worth doing even if you don’t need the discount. In short, hacking has mostly the same uses as it did in System Shock 2, where the whole idea fit in a lot better. (I mean, even the word “hack” is anachronistic for a game set in 1960.)

Almost thereHacking is done through a special minigame that takes over the screen. It’s basically a variant of Pipe Dream/Pipe Mania. You have a grid of tiles depicting tubing. You have to assemble them so that the fluid will flow from an inlet to an outlet, and you have to do fast enough to keep ahead of the fluid. Fail, and you either take damage or trigger an alarm. The genetic upgrades I mentioned mainly affect the play of the minigame in various ways: slowing the flow, reducing the number of unmovable blocker tiles.

A difficult hackBefore you go into the minigame, there’s a screen that shows you the estimated difficulty of the hack. If it looks too hard, or if you simply don’t like the minigame, you have other options, including backing out, using an automatic hacking tool, or even just bribing the machine. I guess this really is the consequences of Andrew Ryan’s philosophy taken to its extreme: even the security systems are free to take a better offer. Not that I’ve ever taken that option. Hacking tools are generally cheaper.

It’s by far the most involved, and to my mind the most engaging, of the hacking minigames in the Shock games. System Shock 2‘s hacking was basically a matter of clicking on dots in a grid that might or might not turn the right color to give you the three-in-a-row you needed. Your hacking skill affected the probability. System Shock 1 didn’t have as many uses for minigame hackery — mainly you hacked by swimming around in cyberspace — but it did have some control panels for security doors that you needed to rewire through a special rewiring interface, another guessing-game where you just tried permutations until you increased a meter to the right level. Neither of these is the sort of game you’d play by itself. They’re more WarioWare-like, little unit operations whose purpose is to make you briefly pay attention to something other than FPS action.

They did have a couple of things over the Bioshock hacking, though. For one thing, they were more believable in context, as user interfaces to whatever was really going on in the machine. Bioshock‘s pipes are I suppose thematic for a game set underwater, but they make you wonder just how these combination locks are constructed. More importantly, the System Shock 1/2 hacking minigames were integrated into the rest of the game a lot more smoothly. Hacking happened in your HUD. The rest of the world still went on around you. You could suddenly come under attack while hacking, and you’d have to stop hacking to respond. Bioshock’s hacking minigame makes a show of being delicate and time-sensitive, which it is, but only in its own time. You can hack a turret while someone’s shooting at you, and you won’t suffer any damage until you’re done. As one of the very first Zero Punctuation reviews pointed out, you hack ceiling-mounted security cameras that are just out of reach by jumping. You do the entire hack while airborne and don’t fall until you come out of the interface.

And, weird as each of those things is, they’re even weirder in combination. Given that hacking is completely separate from the rest of the world, the designers really could have put in any kind of minigame. They could have done something akin to Exploit. They chose pipes. Not that I’m really complaining. It’s still a pretty enjoyable minigame, and works well with the genetic upgrade system.

Bioshock compared to Batman

So I was playing Bioshock a little more. Probably because I just played Arkham Asylum, it’s striking me afresh just how comic-bookish it is. Specifically, it has the same sort of structure that made me compare Killer 7 to a comic book: it’s organized around a series of vividly eccentric villains.

The basic repeating pattern in most levels of Bioshock is that you’re trying to just move toward your ultimate goal (Andrew Ryan), but something stops you. It can be a deliberate obstruction aimed at you in particular or it can be an accident that forces you to seek an alternate route, but either way, it forces you into a confrontation with the person who lords it over that section of Rapture. You learn about this person from radio broadcasts and/or audio journals you find over the course of the level, and what you learn is that he’s over-the-top insane in a way relating to his profession — so you get a mad surgeon, a mad artist, and so forth. In other words, they’re theme villains, only a funny costume away from a spot in Batman’s rogues gallery. I suppose you could argue that they’re all examinations of where Ryan’s philosphy ultimately leads when put into practice, but only if you’re willing to really push it. I don’t think any philosophy leads inexorably to strapping someone to a piano covered in TNT.

In a strange way, it reminds me of Tales of the Black Freighter, the comic-within-a-comic in Watchmen. The point of TotBF was that it was what comic books were like in an alternate universe where superhero comics never took off. Bioshock isn’t even that far separated from superhero comics: when you come down to it, the hero has superhuman powers, by way of plasmids and gene tonics. But it’s far enough away from a conventional superhero story that it feels a little like it could be an adaptation of an artifact from another world.

Bioshock compared to another shock

Even if it didn’t have the word “shock” in its title, I think it would have been clear that Bioshock owes a lot to System Shock 2. It’s got the same sort-of-RPG thing going on, and the same FPS-in-presentation-but-not-in-emphasis vibe. It’s got the same sort of backstory revealed by audio messages and journal entries scattered in unlikely places, as well as the occasional pseudo-scientifically-justified “ghost” cutscene, a very distinctive technique. It’s got the whole business of automated gun turrets that can be hacked to be on your side, as well as the equally-hackable security cameras that summon robots (here presented as not very bright, and awkwardly flying on little helicopter blades) if you stand in front of them for more than a second or two. It even keeps some of the really idiosyncratic touches, like the way that cigarettes restore a little mana at the cost of a little health.

Where does it differ from SS2? Well, the setting, obviously. Being under the ocean isn’t very different in practical terms from being in space — in both cases, it means you’re stuck in a constrained environment in the middle of something deadly, and that the authors can make plot points of the limited oxygen supply — but at least it means that when there are windows (or, better yet, glass tunnels), there can be something interesting to see through them, like gratuitous schools of fish.

SS2, like Deus Ex, had an “Inventory Tetris” system, where picking things up required slotting them into the free space in a grid, with bulkier items taking up multiple slots. People generally didn’t like it, so Bioshock scraps it. In fact, it doesn’t have a general inventory interface at all. Some things, like the aforementioned cigarettes, are simply put outside any kind of inventory by making you use them immediately when you pick them up. Health packs and Eve hypos (mana potions) show up as a number next to the appropriate bar in the main UI, and ammo levels can be seen from a special weapon/plasmid selection screen. There doesn’t seem to be any way to get a list of your currently-installed gene tonics other than going to a Gene Bank, the machine that lets you swap different tonics into the active slots. Similarly, the only way to find out how much of the various components for “inventions” you’re carrying is to take them to one of the machines that lets you assemble them. I don’t much like this. Simplifying the interface is one thing, withholding useful information is another. I swap my gene tonics around a lot, adjusting them to the situation; as a result, I don’t necessarily know at any given moment which ones I have installed, and therefore what sort of actions I should be attempting.

Which brings us to the biggest chance from SS2: the ability to swap in different upgrades. In SS2, once you bought an upgrade, it became a permanent feature of your character. Even before the game proper started, you were asked to choose to specialize in weapons, tech, or psi (magic). I get the impression that most players never did much with the game’s magic system as a result. It wasn’t a very attractive option once you knew the rules — just as in Bioshock, the only way to gain mana was with the equivalent of potions, and at the point where you were asked to choose your specialization, you had no idea how abundant they would turn out to be. But Bioshock lets you experiment with things by changing your specialization on the fly. I compared the research mechanic to the Final Fantasy V “Jobs” system before, but this respeccing reminds me of it even more. I made negative comments about killing everything with the wrench, but if that’s how you want to play the game, you can get tonics that support it. You can even be a sneak-attack wrench specialist, thanks to a gene tonic that makes your footsteps quiet and increases the wrench’s damage against unsuspecting foes.

For my part, I haven’t done a lot of sneak wrenching, but I have come to really like another stealth-gameplay tonic, one that turns you invisible when you stand still for a second or two. There’s a particularly joyous scenario this enables: you accidentally trigger an alarm, and the bumbling and buzzing security drones come after you, so you duck behind a corner and then just stand there, and watch the bots just fly past looking for you. And by far my favorite combat technique is to use a certain plasmid to hypnotize a Big Daddy into thinking I’m a Little Sister and fighting in my defense. I don’t remember doing any of this stuff in SS2, but that’s probably just because I didn’t take the right upgrade path.

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