BioShock is Irrational's finest offering to date, as well as the swan song for the Irrational brand in a way, since they recently relinquished their longstanding and well-established studio name for the more corporate, faceless tag of 2K Boston and 2K Australia. BioShock is a first-person shooter set in the fantastically unsettling city of Rapture, a metropolis built under the sea by the megalomaniacal Andrew Ryan. Throughout your lengthy stay, you'll find options for combat as intricate and enjoyable as the story and characters are to interpretation, something that only a handful of games can ever claim to offer.
But to call this game simply a first-person shooter, a game that successfully fuses gameplay and narrative, is really doing it a disservice. This game is a beacon. It's one of those monumental experiences you'll never forget, and the benchmark against which games for years to come will, and indeed must, be measured. This isn't merely an evolution of System Shock 2, but a wake-up call to the industry at large. Play this, and you'll see why you should demand something more from publishers and developers, more than all those derivative sequels forced down our throats year after year with only minor tweaks in their formulas. It's a shining example of how it's possible to bring together all elements of game design and succeed to the wildest degree.
Things kick off with your plane smacking into the ocean and your character having to take refuge in Rapture to survive. Irrational plays on the conventions of the first-person perspective by thrusting you through experiences that toy with and vastly strengthen that fragile, intangible bond between in-game protagonist and yourself. At times, it forces upon you moments of reflection, which is so important and rare in games, where you contemplate the nature of blindly accepted game conventions, which we can't get into for fear of spoiling things. It lays a relatively straight narrative path for you, but it never feels linear, a result of the gameplay as much as the narrative.
The target in BioShock, Andrew Ryan, is anything but a prototypical villain. He's a man of bottomless ambition who built a city under the sea, obsessed with the idea of what makes a man, what differentiates a man from a slave. He's the Randian hero, a man who holds his own creative vision above all else, and he's Rodion Raskolnikov's exceptional person, someone who can be excused for committing crimes to achieve a goal--and he knows it. His vision, Rapture, is clearly a colossal failure. The driving force behind the game is your quest to discover why this man's alluring vision of an artistic utopia failed so completely and why you've stumbled upon it. Even though Ryan spits out what seems to resemble totalitarian propaganda, you can't help but sympathize with him. He has alluring ideas, speaks them with conviction, and comes off as a sympathetic visionary despite his severe eccentricities.
As you continue through Rapture, you'll discover it speaks to the nature of what a single-player game is--why do we choose to play a game that isn't online, where you can't interact with others? Like reading a novel, it's to form your own impressions, to see the same events, hear the same words, and come away with a unique viewpoint. The thematic blending and twining of BioShock's personalities is so powerful, it acts like any good book or movie, assaulting you with its ideas, popping into your thoughts when you least expect it, and broadening your understanding of what a game can achieve. Instead of painting Good and Evil across the foreheads of Rapture's denizens with a neon brush, Irrational gave everyone murky motives, much like the shadowed, soaking environments you're constantly plodding through, or the blurred vision you get after walking under one of Rapture's ubiquitous waterfalls.
It's the little ideas that pop up from time to time that make this world so believable: the piano plinks that resonate as you browse menu options; the guitars you can actually play randomly scattered around Rapture; the way every room is realistically constructed reflects both the heights to which Rapture managed to climb as well as the decadence and sense of voracious, selfish entitlement that brought it smashing down. You'll hear some of the voice-overs muse, "Why do they wear the masks? Maybe there's a part of them that remembers how they used to be, how they used to look, and they're ashamed." Little bits like that get tossed at you, and you don't necessarily have to absorb them--they're not essential to plot or anything, but they're instrumental in making BioShock as immersive as it is.
The game is broken up into large sections, each separated by load times. Don't worry; these aren't load times like in Half-Life 2 where the game pauses unexpectedly. Instead, the load times are logically placed and never jarringly interrupt the experience or mar the immersion. Each section comes with its own cast of NPCs who aren't mere stage bosses--oftentimes you don't even engage them in combat. Instead, you are battling their ideals and their insecurities, grappling with their motivations as much as the splicer minions who so frequently assail you.
Just because the various versions of the splicers, genetically altered humans, are the standard enemies in the game, they still manage to exhibit as much personality as the rest. They're not zombies; they're totally aware. They're regretful of their condition, yet realize that there's no outlet for them, no opportunity to express themselves or be creative, like an intelligence crippled by hopeless drug addiction. That's true in a metaphorical sense as much as it is in the literal; they're trapped in an underwater city, after all, much like you. It's almost as if BioShock's enemies want you to kill them, to put them out of their misery. Sometimes they seem overly xenophobic and at others whimsical, gallivanting about with an ironic sense of humor.
They're such eerily spirited foes you may even come to pity them. The Big Daddies, for instance, Rapture's lumbering guardians, will wander around stages banging on outlets from where their wards, the Little Sisters, would normally emerge. If you've killed or freed the little girls, as you frequently must, the Big Daddy will invariably knock again and seem genuinely confused over why nobody's coming out as they lumber and groan their way to the next outlet. It's another example of the wonderful details that make Rapture seem so alive.
Then there's the actual combat, which presents a huge array of options. Each weapon in the game has three types of ammunition, all with varying effects. Then you've got a range of plasmids, genetic enhancements to your character that allow for magical attacks, as well as myriad types of tonics you can equip to augment plasmids' effectiveness or buffer your character in other ways. This isn't a game where you're simply limited to an SMG or grenade launcher to attack, though you can use those if you so choose. Tell a Big Daddy to protect you with a powerful plasmid and he swats away any attackers. Set up shock traps with your crossbow darts and rearrange them with telekinesis. If that doesn't work, throw bees at your enemies. Use the enrage plasmid and enemies will beat each other to death as you hide in the corner. Then, as they're fighting, set one of them on fire and toss a chair at the other. While some plasmids are more useful than others--electrobolt and incinerate in particular--the number of ways to dispatch enemies is really limited to your own inventiveness. Had this game been rife with AI problems, the combat system wouldn't have been nearly as good. But as it stands, enemies execute interesting attack patterns, and the plasmids that alter enemy behavior actually work.
If you wanted to it's entirely possible to plow through BioShock using only the most powerful plasmids, but where's the fun in that? You can set up sonic traps for enemies that fling them into the ceiling with deadly force, attach sticky grenades to environmental objects and hurl them at enemies with your telekinesis plasmid, hack security bots to fight for you, or use the decoy plasmid to keep your enemies constantly guessing your real position as they absorb bullets from your commandeered machines. So while there certainly are methods of attack that can be deemed the most effective, you're really missing out on what makes this game so thrilling if you fail to experiment.
And experimentation is something you'll almost be forced into against Big Daddies, who appear in every stage of the game. You'll find the game is designed to force you to fight these things, and the damage they deal and punishment they can absorb requires quick reflexes and inventive, on-the-spot problem solving. This goes especially for those playing on the hardest difficulty setting, but even on medium Big Daddies put up quite a fight. Should you die, which as long as you're not playing in easy mode you certainly will, you get revived at checkpoints called Vita-Chambers. Though you get back some health and Eve, a bar that governs plasmid use, enemies don't. For instance, if you've been hammering away at a Big Daddy for five minutes and gotten him down to around a quarter of his health, that's exactly how much he'll have after you die and return to battle. It ensures enemies can eventually be killed with enough persistence, which might be a nagging feature for some.
Hacking comes into play quite a bit, since through the associated mini-game you're able to control flying bots, turrets, reduce prices at vending machines, and open otherwise inaccessible doors and safes. The mini-game itself requires you to match up sequences of tubes to allow a liquid to flow uninterrupted from one specific point on the screen to another. Various tonics in the game can modify the challenge, and you'll find the system possesses quite a bit of depth. Should you eventually get tired of hacking everything, you can always make auto-hacks through the item invention system or, if you're facing security bots, load up some shotgun shells and blast them to bits.
Besides hacking and modifying plasmids, there are a few other interesting ways to divert your attention. Embedded later on in the game, you'll find a camera that opens up a whole new system of character ability modifications. Scattered around Rapture are one-time use weapon stations that let you further augment various aspects of each armament. These aren't always out in the open, and often you'll need to consult your map to see which rooms in a stage you've missed to find them all. A nice feature of BioShock is you can revisit previous stages at certain points. Enemies will have respawned, so you can pull more money, Eve and health hypos, and various other items from their bodies while backtracking to uncover whatever rooms you may have passed by.
BioShock's controls respond exceptionally well. Player movement just feels natural, with the right speeds for turning and aiming. The Xbox 360 version has a light auto-aim element added to help out with the thumbstick's inaccuracy when compared to a mouse but don't fret--the fights still require a degree of skill. Headshots do quite a bit damage, so it's worth taking the time to aim. One thing we were delighted to see is how effective the wrench, the game's only melee weapon, remains throughout the whole experience. Through various tonic power-ups it can even become more powerful than a majority of your firearms. Since you swap plasmid powers and tonics in at out at any of the specific vending machines, it allows you to alter your play style on the fly and utilize the full range of what's available. Switching between powers and weapons during combat can, however, get distracting at points, since the game needs to pause to allow you access a selection menu. In fights where you're using all kinds of powers, this deflates the intensity of combat to a degree. Instead of using the radial selection menu, you can flip through quickly with the bumpers, but in the middle of battle this method is somewhat impractical, wasting precious seconds.
Really the best aspect of BioShock is how well all the disparate elements blend together. Story plays out mostly through voice-overs, allowing you to stay immersed in the action as plot and character is fleshed out. The sound design is simply amazing here, from the laments of splicers and the groans and thumps of Big Daddies to the sickening smacks and cries of combat to the startlingly realistic ambient noises and humorous calls of the vending machines. Even the near-death alert, which pipes up when your character is low on health, is expertly woven into the game's overall soundscape, unlike other games that test your levels of aural tolerance with sharp and distracting beeps. Every game's voice is well acted. Andrew Ryan in particular is a joy to listen to, with enough vocal gravitas to give Stephen Colbert a run for his money.
To really appreciate the sound in this game, and not necessarily the frenzy of combat, but merely the ambience of Rapture, just stop moving your character when he's alone. Now crank the speakers, or headphones. You start to hear the metallic clanks, the otherworldly breaths of wind, piping up at various distances away, impressing upon you the notion that this world doesn't stop at the walls around you. No matter where you are, there's always the water, a trickling undercurrent of audio, reminding you of your precarious position within this crumbling city being crushed on all sides by an indifferent ocean.
The visuals too will constantly amaze, from finely detailed industrial structures to the weapon models, the choices of which areas to light and which to leave in the dark, and plasmid effects. And then there's the water, oh, the water. It's so gorgeous, rippling and gurgling through every one of Rapture's hallways, tumbling from ceilings and, of course, encasing the city itself. You get lots of little details to enjoy as well, like the welts on your hand when you boot up the insect swarm plasmid, the steam jets that hiss from Big Daddies after they've taken damage, fish in tanks and in the ocean that dart away as you approach, and the flickering billboards and tattered posters that remain from Rapture's glory days.
If there's anything disappointing about BioShock, it's the ending. We found the resolution to be somewhat abrupt for a game in which so many things are colliding and bubbling beneath the surface. Nevertheless, it's no reason to be dissuaded.
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