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 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.