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PLATFORM: Xbox360; PC
ESRB RATING: Mature
PUBLISHER: 2K Games
Industrialist Andrew Ryan — half Howard Hughes, half Ayn Rand hero — built Rapture, a city under the sea, and sponsored the scientific exploration of genetic alteration. Politics and intrigue nearly killed Rapture, and the remnants of the city might kill you if you can’t escape it.
Zero preamble: Bioshock is one of the best games I’ve ever played. It held me fully enthralled from start to finish. The action is savage and almost ideally realized, and the storyline is as good as we’ve ever seen in gaming. That’s not to say that it’s a flawless narrative; a few twists are predictable simply because you’re not supposed to expect them. A handful of plot points are as murky as the waters around Rapture. But the story and gameplay are so tightly interwoven, and the dialogue so well-acted that Bioshock stands tall above nearly all other action-adventure games.
Bioshock is both shooter and classic adventure game. You’ll explore several different areas of Rapture, backtracking freely if you like (you do not have to!) until the game’s final confrontation. You’ll research enemies for combat bonuses, perform the occasional fetch quest and almost literally drown in detail.
About thirty percent of the story is told in voiceover by characters that speak to you via radio. The rest is told in reasonable game-centric fashion: over a hundred tape machines scattered across most of Rapture contain messages both frivolous and cryptic. Some are essential and very hard to miss, though even if you collect all of them you won’t have to listen to any if you don’t like. Why anyone would do that is beyond me, but if you’re looking for a fairly straight shooter without all that plot, Bioshock can be that, too.
The denizens of Rapture have become Splicers — humans driven into dementia by cabin fever and severe genetic alteration. They roam floors and ceilings looking for Little Sisters, the modified human children that collect Adam, the city’s genetic currency. Though the Sisters are essentially invulnerable, they are protected by Big Daddies, men locked in massive diving suits that sonorously call to their charges and roam Rapture with thunderous footsteps.
Eventually you’ll attempt to destroy Big Daddies in order to either kill or liberate the Little Sisters. The choice between death and freedom there is the crux of the game’s morality; you’ll become powerful more quickly by killing the girls, but you’ll also be damned in the long run. The game’s ‘positive’ ending can only be seen by players that act as savior to all the young girls in Rapture.
I was amazed by how effective the Little Sister/Big Daddy dynamic remained over the course of the game. Irrational (actually, it’s 2K Boston/Australia now) has spectacularly animated these characters; there’s care for the Sisters evident in every protective and threatening movement of their massive companions. And the Daddies’ groans seem inarticulate at first, but they’re closer to whalesong than a mere human groan.
Let me take a moment here to mention a few gripes, most of which are utterly trivial. I was vaguely frustrated not to have a simple readout telling me how much I’ve researched any particular enemy, or how many tonics I’d collected. I know it’s a story issue — you should be more concerned with what’s happening in the game than your stats, and I get that, but since there are achievements awarded for collecting things, I’d like to know how far I might have to go.
Slightly more notable, it would be nice to have one more form of Big Daddy. Two thirds of the way through the game’s Medium setting, you’ll have the tools to take any individual Bouncer or Rosie (even the ones designated Elite) within a few seconds. Unless you get caught in a crossfire between Splicers, security bots and a Big Daddy, they won’t provide any challenge at all. Even on Hard, I’ve found my skills and weapons were more than enough to take out even the earliest Big Daddies.
The argument could be made that the lack of challenge is because Bioshock has such an excellent and variable combat system. Your capabilities are divided into two loose groups: weapons and plasmids. The weapons are mostly shooter standards like shotgun, pistol, grenade launcher and wrench. Weapons can be updated twice per, and most have three forms of ammunition.
Plasmids count as Bioshock’s ‘magic’ system. There are weapon plasmids, which allow you to burn, freeze or electrocute opponents, hypnotize Big Daddys to work in your favor, or send a swarm of insects to distract a group of Splicers. Gene Tonics, meanwhile, modify your stamina or beef up your combat, hacking and inventing abilities. You’ll find some, be given others and have to buy or invent the rest of the 50-odd plasmids in the game.
The balance to my complaints is the variability found in the game. Take the first real boss, a demented surgeon. One time we fought, I set him on fire with one plasmid, then shocked the hell out of him with another when he ran for the nearest water to douse the flames. Another time, I hacked a flying bot and the security turret outside, and when I put a couple anti-personnel rounds into him he dashed out of the room and into a crossfire that did the trick. I fired a mere two shots, then watched, laughing.
I’ve talked to five other people that approached the same fight five different ways. That’s the game’s beauty, and where it triumphs over Half-Life. The deeply realized world of Rapture doesn’t just manifest in pretty textures. It literally comes to life every time you use a new tactic to win a battle. I pound the Big Daddies with rockets, while a friend uses the old shock plasmid and wrench combo. One of our message board posters lays a series of electric tripwires with the crossbow and watches the diving suit skid to a sad death at his feet.
I mentioned hacking, which is the game’s system of minigames. Nearly anything electrical — safes, locked doors, cameras, security turrets, vending machines — can be hacked. The minigame has you flipping over and rearranging tiles to route a current of current-carrying liquid. It’s the most overtly steampunk detail in the game, and a fun diversion. You don’t have to hack anything; you can pay higher prices at vending machines, destroy cameras and turrets or find keycodes for locked doors. But why?
Rapture’s an amazing place. Irrational was incredibly thorough in making it come to life. There’s great pleasure to be had simply in exploring and looking at how the various areas interlock, and examining the details that abound in every room.
After a while, you might even forget that you’re supposed to be underwater, simply because there’s so much to look at inside the walls. But then you’ll catch a glimpse outside a window that takes your breath away, or walk through one of the glass tunnels, like the one leading to Hephaestus. Then you realize that the game’s conceit is an absolutely brilliant way of confining gameplay to corridors while providing atmosphere at the same time.
Irrational hasn’t done a 100% perfect job with the graphics engine. You’ll see some of the standard issues — textures that take a couple sconds too long to draw in, laws of physics that occasionally go off the rails, that sort of thing. But the overall level of achievement in design and execution is so high that those little hitches don’t matter in the least. Bioshock is as visually superb as games get. It’s so proficient and beautiful that you’ll likely play through a second time just to look at all the details you missed the first time.
I have to bow down to the sound designers, too, because the game is as lovely to listen to as to look at. The period music is actually quite wonderful, as is the score, and the various sound effects are far above the bar. I love the work being done here, and if I wasn’t so cynical I’d hope this actually augured good things for the industry.
Your mileage will vary with respect to Bioshock’s difficulty. I found Medium to be slightly more than a more strenuous cakewalk than usual, while others consider it more difficult than average — it’ll really depend upon how you use the combination of weapons and plasmids.
Regardless, there are two very distinct endings, which is reason enough to play through at least more than one. That’s in addition to the handful of achievements you won’t likely grab the first time through, unless you’re (a) willing to devote a lot of time to them or (b) are willing to check GameFaqs.
Bioshock takes the Half-Life formula and pushes it into the stratosphere. It’s an orgy of design, weapons, customization and amazing encounters both scripted and improvised. I can’t imagine many players starting it and not being compelled to finish, a rare enough case for games today, and I’d guess that most, after finishing, will be tempted to turn right around and play it again. The march of technology means we’ll eventually have a game like Bioshock that’s bigger and perhaps better, but for now this is as good as games get.