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Halo 3 VS Bioshock

February 1, 2008

This is another feature I wrote a few months back, so the chronological inconsistencies are not errors! I thought it was a nice enough piece so here it is.

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Halo 3 and Bioshock are here. They’re essentially the two biggest titles on the Xbox 360 this year – if not two of the biggest titles to ever be released – and they’ve been phenomenally well received. Currently on Metacritic.com Halo 3 is averaging 95/100 from 50 reviews, and Bioshock 96/100 from 76 reviews. Being that these games are principally FPSes – the most predominant genre on the market – how are they distinguishing themselves in a significant way? Are they really that different from the other games out there? How do they compare, and what contrasts can be drawn?

It wouldn’t be entirely unfair to argue that both games are, in substance, nothing new – just magnificent examples of the genre. However, the FPS label is but a skin-deep one for these powerhouse titles. It is in their concept and execution that they show their true, vibrant colours.

Even if you’re an enormous Halo 3 fan it’s hard to argue that what with the hype, advance press and inflated reviews that the game is enormously overrated, in the purest sense of the word. Platform advocates and fanboys bemoaning any slight against the ‘best game of all time’ are plentiful across the internet. It’s entirely indicative of how massive Halo 3 has become – both inside and out of the gaming sphere – and how much it has to live up to. Similarly, Bioshock‘s promise of possibility brought along its own problems. With shelves full of carbon copy games and yearly releases of the same IP, a title like Bioshock stands out like a beacon of hope amid a sea of mediocrity. The pressure to get these games right was intense: a broken promise is not easily forgotten by gamers.

And they managed. There’s something special about Bioshock and Halo 3 and it’s afforded them a huge amount of attention and respect. Even in their most basic forms they are essentially good games, but at their core lay beating hearts of personality, originality and creativity that cater to the most important aspect of all: the gamer.

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The story telling in both is immense, although the narrative in Halo 3 is a far way off from the level of development found in the unfolding narrative of Bioshock. Bioshock‘s story is one of terror, claustrophobia and fear. It shows rather than tells the player, the audio diaries and dead bodies that litter the halls of Rapture prompting contemplation whilst piecing the elaborate plot together like a jigsaw. Bioshock reaches gaming’s true cinematic potential, and although Halo 3‘s story isn’t far off from the mark, it simply doesn’t develop with the same level of intelligence asBioshock‘s.

Halo 3 merely tells a good – if not a little convoluted – story, whereas Bioshock allows you to fully experience it. Halo 3 constantly falls back on the comfort of cut scenes, they are a narrative technique Bioshock need use only negligibly. In fact, the only time control is taken away from the player and they are forced to watch rather than act, it ties in directly with one of the game’s themes – that of unquestioning obedience and loyalty.

Halo 3‘s story is oft in danger of becoming utter nonsense. The rather interruptive Gravemind and Cortana messages jut into the gameplay, and the game’s absurd stab at a love story could happily have been left behind. Nevertheless, the story is told with such an endearing, cavalier disregard for any form of restraint it is a pleasure to be swept up in it. Whether you’re a fan of the series or not.

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There’s no denying that the surroundings in both titles will likely be remembered for a long time as environments that pushed the boundaries of what many believed possible within a game world. Immersive atmosphere and distinct ambience are prevalent in both. It’s the perfect excuse to buy yourself that AV set-up you’ve wanted for so very long.

Halo 3 and Bioshock do a damn good job of provoking that feeling that you truly are in another reality. The loading sections between levels are in no way jarring, and there is a definite flow from one area to the next. Just as in Half-Life 2 you always start where you left off, a technique that gives movement from one section of the game to the next a certain cohesiveness. The loading screens are not a blunt reminder that you’re actually playing a videogame in your living room, but rather a calming segue from one area of the same world into the next.

It’s incredibly easy to embrace the immersive nature of each game considering the grandeur therein, particularly in Halo 3. Soaring edifices visible on the horizon are reachable, and more than that they are accessible. Bioshock‘s cramped, intense environments certainly prevent this method from being utilized in the same way, but the imaginative, consistent milieu of Rapture – the dark, creepy corners, an atmosphere that never fails to deliver, and a continuity through each section that retains the permanence of the game world – keeps the city of Rapture feeling genuine. When you gaze out of one of the many thick-glassed deep-pressure tubes you often traverse it’s not a huge leap of the imagination to think of one of those fluorescent spires in the distance is going to be your next destination.

The introduction of Bioshock – one of the most awe-inspiring openings ever created – cleverly presents the magnificence of Rapture as its creator, Andrew Ryan, conceived it. It’s not until you enter the city that the true horror of its downfall is revealed – it’s true nature as an underwater tomb exposed to the player in all its gory detail; a fact emphasised to no end by the beauty and spectacle you witnessed just minutes before. It perfectly compounds the claustrophobic fear that defines the experience of navigating Rapture’s twisting corridors.

You spend a lot of time in Rapture as a tourist to your own amazement, just as you spend much of your time playing through Halo 3 awed by the ambitious spectacle. The temptation to stop and breathe in the surroundings is there in both, but be it the expansive Savannah plains in Halo or the beauty of Arcadia in Bioshock, the exceptional and unique environments in which to immerse yourself never divert you from the headlong charge, or dissipate the forward momentum.

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Halo 3‘s graphics have certainly been the focus of a lot of controversy, with careless accusations thrown about of it being Halo 2 in HD. It would not be an unfair to put forth the argument that Halo 3 looks, in some respects, like the Halo 2 engine given room to breathe on a next-gen system, but this being said it would be difficult to find one gamer who has not let out a yell of joy at least once during their Halo 3 experience, be it watching huge ships roar past in the sky whilst making the advance towards the crashed Flood ship, or taking out the first towering Scarab. Despite not being quite on par with other titles, Halo 3‘s bold, hyper-real presentation does a great job of eliciting gasp after gasp. From the lustrous and detailed surfaces to the airbrushed, painterly quality of the big vistas, this is classic sci-fi art come to thundering, rampaging life.

Bioshock certainly fares much better in the visual department. The tight, enclosed environments gave 2K Boston the headroom to pile on layers of detail, leaving behind a living, breathing world that looked as good as it gets.

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It’s to be said without hesitation. This is where Halo 3 does what it does best. Be it ripping turrets from their emplacements or churning through the sand in a Chopper, Halo 3 lavishes the kind of satisfaction on the player that zapping Splicers in a pool of water only half attains. Halo 3 is fantastic, fast, and fun. Bioshock, whilst far from being a tiresome, lacks the pulse-racing adrenaline that infects every part of Halo 3; from the simple firing of your assault rifle to the glorious orgies of freeform vehicular carnage.

It’s impossible not to mention the immensely rewarding AI found in throughout each game. Your opponents are worthy adversaries, and your first encounter with a group of enemies in either adventure (especially on the harder difficulties) will be a humbling moment no matter your skill. Bioshock and Halo 3 expertly gauge the AI’s actions, creating lifelike individuals with their own wicked intellect. Bioshock‘s Splicers will not engage when they feel they cannot win the fight and will utilize the surroundings to their benefit (running for water when set on fire being the most obvious example). Halo 3‘s foes will search for cover, use grenades to keep Master Chief at bay, and actively seek him out when attempting to hide. The group tactics at work in Halo 3‘s AI are a wonder to behold, and are highlighted by vocal feedback that serves to personify each enemy.

Interesting to note is that Bioshock’s investment in AI is sometimes to the detriment of the atmosphere it endeavours to produce. For instance, while the AI’s interaction with both its surroundings and the AI in its vicinity is believable, it magnifies issues such as the Splicer’s ignorance of Little Sisters once their Big Daddy protectors have been killed. Surely the ADAM-thirsty Splicers would set upon the defenceless girl as soon as the opportunity presented itself. It’s a clear indication of how tricky game design can really be; how even clever concepts can be to the disadvantage of other components of the game.

Nevertheless, this is a minor problem in an otherwise broad spectrum of gameplay elements. Bioshock‘s combat constantly forces you to experiment with a considered combination of plasmids and weaponry, whilst also gently persuading you to make use of your environment. The tactical options available are comparatively large for an FPS, and within minutes of starting it up Bioshock will have you testing the quick one-two attack combinations of plasmid and wrench, and experimenting with the different ways in which a simple pool of water can be your strongest weapon. A little further into the game and you’ll see empty bins, disabled droids, and pools of gasoline as tools at your vicious disposal. Observation and experimentation is a key factor to surviving Rapture, a place that offers a level of depth somewhat lacking in Halo 3.

What Halo 3 lacks in depth it makes up for it in breadth. Bubble shields, flares, portable cover, energy drain and booster, gravity lift and auto-turret are all included in your inventory, as is an extensive range of weaponry, each human weapon matched by an alien counterpart. The wealth of inventory items can lead to some confusion the first time through the game, and it will most likely be on the second run that their true potential is realised. The equipment allows for a widening in tactical options whilst leaving balance undisturbed – something Bioshock manages also.

Despite the differentiation in approach to combat, both Bioshock and Halo 3 share the same fundamental idea – making things as fun and diverse for the player as possible within the confines of the shooter template.

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It’s unfortunate that Halo 3‘s campaign is a short nine chapters, some of which are brief, others sprawling. Playing through the game on legendary difficulty takes no more than 8-10 hours depending on the player’s level of skill. Bioshock‘s narrative arc spans a much larger timeframe which varies depending on how you decide to tackle it. Nonetheless, despite its shorter length Halo 3 is the game to which you will return for months, if not years. The co-operative and competitive multiplayer modes – compounded by the inevitability of downloadable content – will keep this game alive for a long, long time. Playing through the campaign solo is one thing, but the addition of four player co-op is nothing of an afterthought. Rather, it is the key to Halo 3‘s brief campaign lifespan. It rewrites the entire experience and opens legendary difficulty to even the most amateur of players. It is doubtful that Bioshock’s emphasis on story and atmosphere could support a co-op campaign. Any attempt would most likely feel forced and more than a little shoehorned into the game. Halo 3, with its expansive landscapes, offers the perfect playground to jump into and have fun with your mates.

Bioshock simply cannot compete with Halo 3 in this aspect. You can play Bioshock a few times over, maybe tackling the harder difficulties, but eventually the novelty of killing Splicers through a variety of methods is going to wear thin. The lack of multiplayer in Bioshock certainly takes away a few of the points it could have gained for longevity, but it could also be argued that in some ways it benefits from this, as the focus on single player made the experience of Bioshock the great one it is. Then again, although this line of reasoning is a solid one it is not without its cracks. It cannot be denied that Bioshock does not support more than just a few playthroughs, and without a decent multiplayer it will eventually fall to the wayside.

Halo 3‘s Theatre and Forge modes are the type of inclusion that sets this generation of gaming apart. These additions blow Halo 3 wide open. The Forge mode is a flexible mix of sandpit, physics lab, sports arena and theatrical stage – and a hell of lot of fun to play to boot – and the Theatre mode serves as an awesome presentation point, displaying just how much is happening in the game at any one time and the staggering complexity the engine is able to handle (as well as allowing players to gloat over their victories, of course). Regrettably the Theatre mode doesn’t quite offer the flexibility in options many would like – the only choice available being to save a chunk of film. It would be nice to be able to edit films together from varying angles, allowing for even more creativity from the player base.

The community support and sheer commitment that lays behind the Forge, Theatre, Multiplayer and Co-op modes, and the way they’re unified with the game at the most fundamental of levels, is nothing short of amazing. It is one area Bioshock does not even touch upon. This is the future of gaming, and although Bioshock innovates with such ideas as moral ambivalence and player choice, Halo 3‘s technical innovations are so far ahead of any peer in terms of features and scope that they probably won’t be equalled for years. They are built to be used, to be shared, to be loved, and most of all, they are built to last.

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Bioshock could be very much likened to a David Fincher film. It’s creepy, it’s dark, it’s atmospheric, and it’s incredibly stylized. It doesn’t just meet your expectations but goes as far to redefine them, in such a way as games did routinely in the past. Intelligence, invention and inspiration are the key factors that make it clear Bioshock’s creative team have scrutinized FPSes, and then purposefully flouted the conventions that were ostensibly set in stone. So what about Halo 3? Well that’s easy. Steven Spielberg. It’s big, it’s beautiful, it’s awe-inspiring, and it can bring us closer to our friends. Like any Spielberg film Halo 3 starts out small, keeps it simple, and then builds into an unstoppable, sci-fi action steamroller. Every time you think it can’t top its own intensity, audacity and sheer scale, it goes and outdoes itself.

If someone was to ask for an example of videogames as art, it’s a likely bet many a gamer would be tempted to put Bioshock in their list. It certainly gives anyone invested in the debate plenty of ammunition to tackle the subject. Bioshock is a great demonstration of what games are capable of and the messages they are able to deliver. Halo 3, on the other hand, is a phenomenal demonstration of the exuberant heights a game can reach when done right. It is damn near polished to perfection.

I even wonder, would Halo 3 be as fun if it were bogged down by philosophical musings and moral quandaries? You don’t go to a Steven Spielberg movie to think hard, you go to be blown away by fantastic set pieces. It’s the same with Halo 3. Not every game needs to be a deep, transporting, revolutionary exercise in social magnitude. On the contrary, sometimes the best titles are the ones that are simple, solid and fun. Bioshock certainly has its place – one that places it in a position to do great things for the industry – but it never reach the sheer levels of fun that Halo 3 achieves. Intelligence and innovation versus an exercise in out-and-out entertainment is the crux of the argument here.

Still, needless to say, both titles are a perfect encapsulation of why videogaming is such a favourite way to pass time for so many of us. They’re the type of games that are going to make a lot of rival developers either very excited or very depressed as they come to terms with how far ahead they’ve pushed the medium in terms of what it’s capable of. Halo 3, and indeed, the entire Halo series, has had such an impact on gaming culture and society at large that the benefits of it expanding the interactive medium are priceless. Never before has a videogame been so confidently, so loudly touted as an event, so much so that even non-gamers are listening. Bioshock on the other hand is significant as it something that gamers can hold high and use as proof that gaming is not the immature exercise in time-wasting as it is considered by many. Iron-clad proof behind this argument is yet to be ubiquitous within the gaming catalogue, but it’s getting there, and Bioshock is an assertion to this fact.

Halo 3 and Bioshock personify gaming at its best, both in their differing approaches to the genre and in their importance to gamers and even society. The total lack of compromise in each is breathtaking. It is clear that these are the type of videogames gamers want. Considering their status as Xbox 360 shooters it’s funny to think such titles are so rare in the industry. They’re the type of games that live up to the promises and hype that have came before them, and in for the most part even exceed such lofty expectations through talent, imagination, dynamism, style, wit, class and sheer bloody minded ambition. Bungie and 2K Boston have crafted examples of gaming that will take something very special to top in the months, nay, even years ahead.

This is how Bioshock and Halo 3 have distinguished themselves.

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