Thursday, 23 August 2007

Bioshock: What's Gone Wrong?

I know, it's not been released yet - the demo has, however.

I eagerly read the review in my copy of PC Gamer magazine, salivating over the various exquisite-sounding details of this groundbreaking, landmark FPS title. It got a review score so high that I can count the games that spring to mind of equal standing on one hand. After glancing at the averages over several different reviews, I see that the cumulative figure is even higher. PC Gamer gave it one of their highest ever scores, and it's still low for this game.

In short, it sounds pretty damn good.

It was a 1.8 gig file, which I thought would take an age to download - if it did at all - so was prepared to wait until the next issue of PC Gamer arrived so I could install it from their DVD. I'm glad I downloaded it yesterday though. Fileplanet's server coped commendably well, consistently delivering speeds of 500kbp/s or more. I downloaded and installed the game which, for some inexplicable reason, was zipped - why zip a file when it's that size? Surely someone who's just downloaded a file that's 1.8 gigabytes in size isn't going to worry if it suddenly stretches over the 2 mark.

I'm really glad I didn't wait for PC Gamer to arrive in a few weeks. It means that I've already played it and realised how broken it is.

I'll first explain - this computer isn't a slouch. The minimum requirements for Bioshock are, by all accounts, pretty lofy to begin with. But this computer can handle it. The game calls for a 2.4ghz single core processor. This machine has a 2.8ghz dual-core. 128mb graphics, it asks for. 256 in this baby. '1 Gigabyte RAM', it whines, and I deliver. And, yet, it doesn't work.

I've done some investigation into the issues I've been experiencing - for instance, the game being unplayable - and other people are having many of the same problems, chiefly because of a small piece of software in the Graphics Card that Bioshock requires to be able to run properly. The pivotal opening scene, from what I understand, is a terrifying plummet out of a burning plane and into the sea. Imagine this, in all it's visceral, frightening beauty, rendered in state-of-the-art graphics, shiny and textured, oozing atmosphere. When I boot up Bioshock, it looks like I'm falling in a black and white popcorn machine as silhouettes of, what I can only assume, fragments of the plane and people's bodies fly past along with fractured, broken textures. I then land in the 'water' and am greeted with what appears to be a rough approximation of a flaming inferno - by 'rough approximation', I mean something that I'd expect to see in Doom or Quake, circa 1997 instead of 2007 - raging upon a taught, perfectly flat piece of white linen. The game instructs me to use the familiar 'W A S D' keys to move, and I get the kind of result that's, actually, one of the only reasons for an Apple fan proud to own a Mac - a slideshow.

I do understand 2K Games' desire to create the best product possible. Obviously, they've done a remarkable job, with review scores towering over competitors in the genre and the kind of hype flying around the internet that isn't seen to often - with the exception of, perhaps, a new Half-Life title or a Halo sequel.

But what's wrong with a bit of customisation with the graphics? It's the dream of every PC gamer to have a fearsome machine, capable of striking fear into people at LAN parties, making them bow down in awe of the raw processing power that reduces choppy framerates to the type of thing only seen in vague nightmares of yesteryear. But compare the investment in PC's to that of the average console owner. They buy a machine - a heady initial outlay, sure, but still nothing compared to what people will spend on a new PC, capable of playing games like Bioshock or the forthcoming Haze - and that's it. Perhaps a new peripheral or memory card, but nothing like the serious expenditure of upgrading a PC. Think about all the components - RAM, Graphics Cards, hard-drive space, sound cards. New processors. And now, with us being firmly entrenched within the dual-core era, it's getting even more expensive. People are having to buy two processors and two high-end Graphics Cards to render the bleeding-edge software in the kind of detail the developers intended. It's simply too expensive, unless you're willing to wait a few years and play the games when computers are even more advanced and the games you want to play are on budget ranges, being swallowed up by whatever technological advancements we'll see in the future.

For the average PC gamer, playing brand new games is becoming a rarer pleasure. The requirements to be able to enjoy them to the fullest are simply alienating more and more people. I'd love to play Bioshock if my PC - which is by no means obsolete and archaic - could handle it.

Of course, there are a multitude of graphical options in Bioshock that render it, theoretically, in a way that is less pleasing on the eye but will help your processor heave it's way through the mountains of date the game requires. I tried these, to little effect - I still had a jagged, unplayable demo, not to mention the multitude of graphical glitches. Whether or not this will be resolved by the time the full game is released on August 24th is questionable.

What's of no doubt, however, is that PC gaming is an expensive hobby - and the number of people who are able to take advantage of the latest games to the full is diminishing as the machines they build to enjoy these games become more intricate and complicated. For every Graphics Card that comes down in price, there's another processor to buy to add on to whatever's already powering your machine. And so on.

It might just be me, but I'm sure it's beneficial for developers to introduce more scaling options to the graphical repetoires of the games. If I could run Bioshock, even on a lower graphical setting, I'd rush out and buy it - because it'd still look good enough to play, by a wide margin. I believe that the developers, 2K games, are getting too caught up in crafting realistic, gorgeous graphics to take notice of who wants to play their game. I'm sure they think that people who are going to buy their game will, naturally, as enthusiasts, have machines capable of running it. This is nothing more than an idealistic view that assumes everyone has hundreds of pounds to upgrade their PC every time a component becomes too old to run the latest hype-machine blockbuster. That's simply not true. A little bit of leeway given would work wonders, letting the potential audience of such a fantastic game increase exponentially. Sure, it wouldn't look quite as good ('oh no!' says lead designer, sighing with exasperation. 'Only 95% of the particles in that cloud of vapour are visible on the lower setting! it's ruined!') - but more people could play the game, experience the dystopian world of Rapture - surely the point of the software. More people could experience what is, undoubtedly, one of the finest gaming hours (or, to be more precise, at least 40, according to some reviews) of the last five years.

It's sad and cynical of me, I know, to close on this point. But if they need any more convincing, 2K Games should go talk to their accountant and see what they think about more people being able to buy and play their masterpiece, more people able to enjoy their magnum opus of a game that, even five years ago, wouldn't have seemed possible, let alone achievable in the near future.

I really hope it's a better experience when the full game is released. It looks phenomenal. If not, I guess, I'll see it at the end of the decade.


Simon Brent said...

Hello. Don't know how you found me, but I appreciate anyone who takes time to read my ramblings :-)

I certainly agree with your sentiments about the expense of PC gaming - I upgraded my machine very recently, with Bioshock mostly in mind - to the tune of £450. Admittedly it rather needed some extra juice, but that's still a sizable chunk - hell, it's almost enough to afford a PS3...if you wanted a Blu-ray player with optional gaming that is ;-)

Bizarrely, the more I've played Bioshock, the more I've come to realise that I could quite easily write a 500-or-so word review of it that is entirely negative. The closer we get to perfection, the more obvious the flaws become.

But the most glaring problem I had was rather similar to yours, not in that it was graphically unplayable, but in a development decision that you just wouldn't expect to see in this day and age.

I don't like WASD. I never have - I find RDFG much more comfortable. But Bioshock won't let you rebind the R key. Seriously, what the hell? Anyway, being a programmer myself, the config file held no fear for me, so I dug in and changed the binding in there. Obviously I didn't do a 100% job of it though, because on occasions, particularly scripted sections where you have your weapon lowered, my direction keys stopped working, and I had to resort to the good old arrows. I'd expect more from an average game in 2000, let alone one receiving some of the best scores we've ever seen. I get the feeling that once again the PC version of a great game is a slightly second class citizen, where attention to detail is lost.

It is sad, but as you pointed out, it's much easier for developers (or at least, publishers) to consider console gamers as their primary audience - a platform which has unvarying hardware, where every machine will theoretically work in the same way. And these days there are just more people playing games on consoles than PCs. We are a dying breed.

Mike said...

Thanks for the comment, much appreciated! Looks like you took some time to write it, too. I found you via going onto my profile and clicking 'gaming' and see who turned up :p

I'd also need to seriously upgrade my PC to play Bioshock, specifically a new graphics card. You'd think that, like a lot of other games, 2k would be a bit more flexible with the minimum specs by allowing other parts of the computer to compensate for a small failing somewhere else. Seems that they've also taken the hard-line approach with the controls - I can't believe they won't let you bind actions to different keys! As you said, I'd be annoyed if that wasn't allowed in a game from a decade ago. Myself, personally, I like WASD, but I'd find myself trying to re-bind other things, I'm sure. And it's just the damned principle of the thing: it's a bit ludicrous.

I know what you mean about the PC version being slightly neglected. But, despite that, I'd still rather play it on PC. Perhaps I'm just too much of a Sony fan to stoop to buying a 360. :p