It's 1960 and an unfortunate crash sends you down over the Atlantic. Upon reaching the surface, you come across a strange lighthouse that turns out to be the entrance to the undersea city of Rapture. By Bathysphere, you travel fathoms under the ocean to the sea floor. Before entering, you see the words on arched steel struts "All Good Things", "On Earth", "Flow", and then finally "Into the City." And as your Bathysphere passes the last few words, the word "City" flickers, sparks, and then goes out.
This is one of the iconic moments in the introduction to Rapture
that will be remembered for years. Rapture, the city built by Andrew Ryan under the broad strokes of unhinged capitalism and total and utter freedom for the city's occupants, is dying. This is the moment of foreshadowing where you know everything will not be okay down under the Atlantic. "Rapture" is therefore not a place of bliss (although you will experience a gamer's bliss from playing BioShock), but a hell, a place where you might, as they say, meet your maker.
BioShock is the latest effort from Irrational Studios (now 2K Boston and 2K Australia) and it's a massive undertaking, many years in the making. And it's so good, we might not see a game of it's caliber many years after. BioShock is a shooter, a retro sci-fi thriller, a revenge story, a dystopian allegory, an adventure, and to a lesser extent a role-playing game. But BioShock is first and foremost a first-person-shooter. It leaves no question in the player's mind, and doesn't dance around it's pedigree in the way Deus Ex did, or the way System Shock 2 was sparse on the shooter side, heavy on the RPG. No. BioShock is a game where you definitely have to kill things. And kill things aplenty.
And that's good because BioShock is a brilliant shooter. It has been fine tuned to perfection. You'll be dealing out a helping of lead as well as firing lightning bolts and fire balls from your fingers, with the greatest of pleasure. Ever wanted to electrocute or burn your victims alive? You can! Even the environment interacts with your electricity, fire, and frost. "Evolve today!" an advertisement says when you find another plasmid, the game's system of "magic." And given the advantage of doing so, you'll be hard-pressed to not. From telekinesis to setting mental whirlwind traps for your enemies to alerting cameras to enemy presences to freezing enemies in place, BioShock has your every desire covered.
The creatures you'll be fighting come in two types: Splicers and Big Daddies. Splicers come in several forms and are the inhabitants of Rapture who have used too many plasmids. They're addicted to the world's form of currency: Adam. (But you'll find normal currency there as well.) Splicers are twisted and mutated, as you will learn, and very ornery. But the Splicers don't mess with Rapture's guardians, the Big Daddies, who protect the Little Sisters, vessels that harvest Adam from the dead.
You see, BioShock is a living, breathing place. Splicers go to and fro about their daily business of walking around saying very disturbing things. Big Daddies go around protecting Little Sisters, not interested in you until you initiate a fight. And there comes some of the most interesting ways to play the game. Interacting with the inhabitants of Rapture, causing them to turn on each other, is one of the most enjoyable things to do. The AI is superbly crafted. Sure it's a great shooter, but it's a "smart" shooter.
Monster closets are gone here, although you'll find many moments that trigger splicer attacks. But they're hidden perfectly, and are much more believable than, say, Doom 3. They're more like moments in Half-life when headcrabs jump from behind desks or out of cupboards, scarrier though. Clearing a room does not necessarily mean it will be unoccupied for good, as splicers wander around Rapture all the time.
And for a shooter, what a wonderful assortment of weapons BioShock has! Grenade launcher, crossbow, pistol, shotgun, flame thrower, and more...and each weapon has three different types of ammunition, some of which you can "invent" at stations throughout the game. Couple this with the plasmid abilities, which you can purchase for Adam at "Gatherer's Gardens" and there are a great many ways to just "shoot".
But BioShock is more than just a shooter. It is an epic undertaking of storytelling. It is as brilliant in narrative as it is in anything else. It is a wonderful shooter, yes. But BioShock is a single-player only experience and is nothing without the narrative, without the bread-and-butter story that trumps not only every other game this year (possibly every game since Beyond Good and Evil), but perhaps even every film
this year. BioShock is one of those amazing pieces of art where you get your mind absolutely blown away several times in the fairly long twenty hour game.
BioShock is, simply, a masterwork.
From the beginning to the end, it never hiccups with the story: not once. And if you think it hiccups with the gameplay, think again. If we were to make concessions, assuming you even notice these problems, it would be that sometimes you have to go "hunting" for items and that the Vita-chambers (in which you are resurrected when you die) make the game easy, even on the "hard" setting. But that is basically a scratch on an otherwise perfect picture. And in order to keep the game more "user friendly" Ken Levine's team decided that it was more important for the gamer to not get frustrated and put the controller down. The Vita-Chambers are meant to be, I assume, a high-five to the casual gamer. And that's all well and good, but I would have loved a difficulty without any Vita-Chambers. (On a side note, Ken Levine has stated that they would be happy to add some downloadable content: I vote that they add a difficulty without Vita-Chambers).
The gameplay is similar to System Shock 2, for those of you who played it. In both games you are in contact with another person via radio that wants to help you out; in BioShock that person is Atlas
. You proceed through the levels of the game, which are massive, non-linear areas, finding pre-recorded dialog of the citizens of Rapture, and making your way to discover the forces behind this whole thing. In System Shock 2 you find digital texts on the ground which advanced the storyline. The only difference is that in BioShock the "texts" are recordings and they're wonderfully voice acted. The rest of the story is told through creepy ghost sightings that show the interaction between the citizens of Rapture before they changed into bloodthirsty Splicers. When these moments happen you'll want to pay attention. Always they reveal things in story, sometimes they lead you somewhere important, but whatever they do, they're creepy and exciting.
But of all the moments in the game, none are quite going to surpass the thrill of fighting a Big Daddy for the first time. This is a moment you'll lavish for some time, and likely want to simultaneously re-experience and avoid. Big Daddies might be lumbering hulks before you pester them, but step between them and the Little Sisters (actually, you have to attack the Big Daddies) and they become red-eyed, fast-moving, drill-wielding aggressors. They're difficult, very difficult; they will kill you many times throughout the game.
Kill a Big Daddy, and you'll have the chance to either harvest or save a Little Sister. This is the moral dilemma present in the game, and it's quite startling. The first time you kill a Big Daddy and harvest or save a Little Sister, she will back up against a box and cower before you. I dare you not to feel some pity for her. Other than these moments, after killing a Big Daddy, you cannot harm a Little Sister. That's right, you cannot kill them otherwise, they're invincible. This somewhat breaks the illusion of the game's moral dilemma, and the reason why Big Daddies are even there to begin with. Still, the ratings board would be all over this one if they let you. So we can live with it.
And then there are those moments in the game where you know you're playing some sort of higher art. It's the moments when gameplay is no longer at odds with the story (as is the case so often), and when plot points and betrayal and subterfuge play out in real-time as you play the game. Give it up to BioShock's use of voice acting and radio messages for this one – I have never, in my many years of gaming seen a more mature and masterful use of dialog to engage and (pardon the pun) enrapture the player.
And then, then!
, there are the moments when the game is more frightening than Holloween
, more taut and suspenseful than Alien
, more disturbing than Saw
. It achieves a kind of balance between horror (which pervades the first seven hours of gameplay) and action (which is prevalent in the last seven). BioShock is not, however, a "jack-of-all-trades" as it can pull these moments off much more successfully than the specialists.
The end! The end, of which there are two, come at the perfect time, as well. Even though the boss at the end is somewhat a pushover (sure, you'll die once or twice, but only until you figure him out), BioShock does not overstay its welcome. I went through the game in twenty two hours over the course of three and a half days (not continuously) on Hard difficulty. And I'm going through it again. And to get each and every achievement point you're going to have to do it at least two times. The secret achievement points are wonderful, especially one that centers around a psychotic Splicer who has you take pictures of the dead. And the ways you can play BioShock are only limited by your imagination. Want to specialize in fire? Ice? Want to be a wrench jockey? You can! There's even a plasmid for the stealth lovers. And the flexibility is part of BioShock's appeal. I think it is going against the grain in saying I was dissapointed that you can swap out your plasmids at stations, but the game is
more fun for it. And anyway, the stations are not always easy to get to, as splicers and turrets make your life a living hell.
BioShock may get heat from no multiplayer mode, but it is totally unfounded. Yes, a deathmatch with the sweet abilities in BioShock would have been awesome, but that's not what Ken Levine's team set out to do. They set out to create a masterfully complex narrative and a superior shooter to boot. Congratulations, 2K Boston, 2K Australia, BioShock is an unbridled success.