From the moment BioShock began, I knew I was in for something special. Its opening sequence, placing the player in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean surrounded by the fiery debris of a sinking plane, is one of the most dramatic prologues I've ever seen in a videogame. My stomach tightened anxiously as I spied the massive entrance to Rapture off in the distance. This was no full-motion video cut-scene, but a tightly scripted set piece that pulled me into BioShock's world with a sense of frightful urgency. And such is the nature of BioShock—the entirety of the game is experienced from the protagonist's perspective as players are propelled through a tightly scripted narrative that feels like a strange hybrid of science fiction and philosophical exposé. But while BioShock begins with a great deal of promise, ultimately only some of that promise is realized.
Set in an alternate-past 1960, Rapture is a failed capitalist utopia, a monument to individualism and rationality masterminded by eccentric industrialist Andrew Ryan. It was to be a collection of the world's greatest minds, free of the shackles of collectivism that, in Ryan's view, constrained mankind from reaching his true evolutionary destiny. Without question, Rapture is one of the most provocative settings ever created in a videogame. A surreal mixture of art deco architecture and wondrous technology, it creates a harrowing backdrop that inspires both awe and dread. And Rapture not merely a static backdrop; it still breathes—or rather gasps—as it leaks, creaks, and crumbles farther and farther from its idealistic foundation.
When science was allowed to flourish outside the bounds of morality in a free and unregulated market, citizens began making drastic genetic modifications to themselves, and soon the entire city was in disarray as its citizens became more godlike, but at the cost of their sanity. The people of Rapture seem to be going about their business, often quite indifferent to my presence. I often stumbled upon one of Rapture's “Little Sisters” —innocent-looking children cursed with freakish genetic modifications—grazing on a corpse to extract a precious biological resource called “ADAM” while fiercely protected by a powerful, monstrous guardian known as a Big Daddy. The genetically mutated citizens of Rapture—known simply as “Splicers”—need the ADAM to survive, and can often be spotted attempting to kill the Little Sisters and reaping the wrath of the formidable Big Daddies.
To survive in this dangerous dystopia, players are required to “evolve” as well. ADAM is the catalyst for a diverse array of genetic modifications—from supernatural “plasmid” abilities that range from setting things ablaze at will to exerting mind control over Big Daddies, to a host of other abilities such as exceptional physical prowess, an affinity toward hacking and controlling computers, and even extracting health and energy from food. Of course, harvesting ADAM from the Little Sisters means confronting Big Daddies, who are the game's deadliest foes. And while these superhuman abilities certainly become a necessity of survival in Rapture, an impressive arsenal of unique firearms provides ample destructive flair as well. The weapons, most modeled to some degree off real-life weapons from the early 20th century, can be used with a variety of ammunition types that work with varying efficacy against different types of foes. Everything is exceptionally well-balanced here, and it's gratifying to play a game in which so much variety is given to the player. Freeze an enemy with a plasmid and blow them to icy bits with a shotgun, or set an oil slick ablaze and watch any of the Splicers haplessly caught in the ensuing inferno run in panic toward the nearest water source to douse the flames. Or perhaps catch a grenade in mid-air using telekinesis, and toss it right back at its owner.
And yet despite its aesthetic brilliance and the near-overwhelming variety of weaponry, BioShock never left me with a feeling that it was truly an evolution of the genre. Its rote linearity feels dated compared to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl or even 2004's Far Cry. Its core gameplay structure of upgradeable weapons and abilities has been done many times in first-person shooters, not only in the System Shock games but in the Deus Ex series as well. What's more, I found the multiple approaches to gameplay considerably imbalanced; for example, in Deus Ex, a character with an affinity for stealth and computer hacking is significantly less formidable in head-to-head combat. In BioShock, however, there is little to prevent the player from acquiring a broad but disparate array of lethal skills. Frequent conflict is an inevitability, and the myriad of tactics mostly serve to provide visually flashy ways of dispatching similar types of foes. Sure, there are Splicers that run around maniacally, crawl on the ceiling or teleport, but there is little to differentiate them aside from their theatrics; all of them will charge head on eventually or, if they are armed, spray bullets in an erratic fashion. Save for the Big Daddies, the enemies never display a sense of awareness or uniqueness that make them truly satisfying to kill. I would have liked to have seen the Splicers make better use of the dark, confusing environments to create combat with a cat-and-mouse kind of tension, rather than the more brute force approach that is prevalent throughout the game, save for a few well-crafted scripted sequences. The “Vita-Chambers” are also problematic. Their frequent placement renders death more of a momentary inconvenience than anything of real consequence. Their abundance combined with the litany of power-ups scattered about the levels, makes the game a fair bit too easy. The game already provides both checkpoints and quicksaves, so the inclusion of the Vita-Chambers is quite superfluous.
The game also presents a “moral” choice that feels promising early in the game, but ultimately falls into the cliché traps of black and white extremes. When harvesting the Little Sisters for ADAM, players can choose to either extract as much of the biological goop as possible—killing the Little Sisters in the process—or extracting less ADAM and allowing the Little Sisters to live. The goal is to arouse empathy within the player, as the Little Sisters are merely innocent victims of scientific tyranny and can be spared their slave-like fate. This minor choice drastically affects the storyline, but only in one of two tightly scripted ways. There is no middle ground to the endings; players are either a saint or the Devil incarnate. The choice has little effect on the gameplay as well— although allowing the Little Sisters to live harvests less ADAM, the players are “rewarded” later on with a fat amount of the stuff such that it equals out very well. While I don't take issue with the fundamental choice or the gameplay balance, the black and white nature of the morality in the game renders it more of a superfluous ploy than a compelling gameplay concept.
So BioShock is not a revolutionary game, or even a particularly innovative one; by the time I reached the end, I felt as though I had played a rather standard and predictable first-person shooter. BioShock's redemption lies in its methodical pacing, its elegant scripting, and its breathtaking art direction. It's a game that is truly a visual treat not merely because of its polygon counts but because of its superb realization of such a strange and complex universe. Simply exploring and interacting with the city of Rapture is truly engrossing; rarely in a game have I seen such a horrifically beautiful and original setting. The entire game even carries with it a none-too-subtle critique on Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy—Ryan's staunch adherence to individualism and rationality is both the genius of Rapture and its ultimate downfall. But regardless of whether players agree with—or even pay attention to—the game's philosophical underpinnings, there's still a great deal of humanity in the storyline with well-developed characters and clever plot twists. It's unfortunate that much of it is merely wrapping though; the combat, the role-playing, and the morality all could have been much better fleshed out to create a truly inspired work of art, but ultimately they feel incomplete. But while BioShock's gameplay may not be as evolutionary as Andrew Ryan would have made it, its dramatic storytelling and imaginative vision still elevate it above its more primitive peers.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PC 1.0 version of the game.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language
Parents should keep the wee ones away from this one. It's graphic and very intense, with themes that are more suited toward adults. The combat is frequent and bloody, and the game carries with it a philosophical nuance that may be too complex and mature for young children.
PC Gamers might want to pass and get the 360 version if possible, or purchase the game online from either Steam or Direct2Drive. There have been many problems with activation issues with the retail version of the game, relating to the SecuROM copy protection. Also note that there have been widespread reports of stability issues with the PC version of the game. I experienced crashes to desktop and system hangs on a regular basis, and in some cases was able to duplicate the crashes at the same point in the game. If you have troubles, download nVidia's beta 163.44 drivers, which contain optimizations for Bioshock and update DirectX.
Fans of Deus Ex and System Shock can't go wrong here. It's right in the same alley and features many identical gameplay elements. The upgrade system reminded me a great deal of the "Biomods" in Deus Ex: Invisible War and indeed they function very similarly. It's more of a straight-on shooter than Deus Ex—few opportunities are given to play the game without direct conflict—but the fundamental ideas are very similar.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers needn't miss out on anything essential, as there are subtitles. The game does rely fairly heavily on audio cues, however, such as approaching enemies shouting, or unaware enemies rambling on incoherently.