Genre: First-Person Shooter/Adventure
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: August 21, 2007
If absolutely nothing else, BioShock doesn't look like anything else.
It's set in 1960. You've just survived a plane crash, and in the aftermath, you've found a lighthouse in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with a bathysphere inside. With nowhere else to go, you descend into the hidden city of Rapture.
Rapture is a capitalist utopia gone sour. Funded and governed by the industrialist Michael Ryan, Rapture was conceived as a place where “the great will not be restrained by the small.” In Rapture, scientists are free to practice their trade without any sort of restrictions, whether it's social, financial, or moral. You get that much from the filmstrip that plays while you're riding the bathysphere down.
When you set foot inside Rapture yourself, it's clear everything's gone to hell. A pile of discarded placards, left by demonstrators asking Ryan to let them leave Rapture, are sitting near the exit. The city's taken serious damage from an unknown source. Parts of it are leaking. Others are on fire.
More importantly, you're being stalked. One of Rapture's scientists' inventions is the plasmid: a genetic cocktail that bonds with its user and grants him or her superhuman powers, such as telekinesis or pyrokinesis. Using it occasionally is fine. Using it constantly drives the user irrevocably insane, turning them into the homicidal madmen called Splicers. They're hard to kill, they're everywhere, and they're coming after you.
BioShock gets more interesting the more you play it. Rapture, as a setting, has had a lot of thought put into it, but it isn't presented aggressively either. If you didn't bother to pick up the recorded diaries that are scattered throughout the area, you'd learn all you need to know about the setting in the first five minutes. They've invented superhuman powers; the powers drive people insane; you'll need to use those same powers to survive; the insane people want to kill you; and you're trapped in a decaying underwater city with a couple of thousand of them. There. You're done.
More importantly, it's the direct antidote to Just Another First-Person Shooter Syndrome. You never leave the first-person perspective in BioShock, but almost from the moment you start the game, it prevents you from playing it like a shooter. Ammo is in relatively short supply, but more importantly, shooting it out is only rarely the appropriate solution to a given problem. You can probably find a better way to do this.
In BioShock, there are usually several different possible ways to deal with an obstacle. You could go for the shootout, using your limited stocks of health and ammunition to kill anything in your way; you could be sneaky; you could hack turrets, drones, and security cameras to give yourself an advantage; or you could use one of several plasmid powers to disorient, disable, or destroy the problem at hand. More importantly, the game doesn't point giant glowing neon fingers at the fact that there are multiple solutions to any given problem. If you react before you think, you've lost your window. It's like life, that way.
The best example of this approach comes from the monsters that may become BioShock's signature visual: the Big Daddies. These giants are hidden inside an old-fashioned diving suit, and serve as the nearly unstoppable guardians of the Little Sisters: young girls who've been forced to serve as the hosts of a bizarre parasite. This parasite serves to store the genetic material that the Sisters gather from the living things they find. This material is called Adam.
You need Adam, because it's used to buy upgrades at certain vending machines. Adam lets you buy more slots in which to equip plasmids; more plasmids, both active attack models and passive defensive power-ups; and extensions for your health and energy meters. Without a steady supply of Adam, you're probably going to die.
To get Adam, though, you'll have to take on Big Daddy in order to steal Adam from the Little Sisters. Big Daddy is very fast, very dangerous, and very difficult to kill. Simply walking up to him with a shotgun is going to end poorly for you, and using plasmid powers directly on him doesn't work much better. He's just too tough. He also doesn't attack you directly, either.
Thus, you have a series of choices to make. Do you fight Big Daddy at all? He's not a threat to you, and you might be able to get by without the Adam. If you do fight him, how can you use beat him? You could hotwire turrets to catch Big Daddy in a crossfire, use a plasmid called Enrage to turn other enemies against the Big Daddy, or lure him into flooded areas so you could electrocute him, and that's just for starters. Every time you encounter Big Daddy, he represents a major tactical challenge.
Once you've beaten him, what are you going to do with the Little Sister he was guarding? You're told early on that the Sisters are no longer human, and can be dealt with in any way you see fit. That's immediately contradicted by one of the surviving scientists, though, who offers you a new plasmid. With this, you can extract Adam from the Little Sisters harmlessly, turning them back into normal little girls… but you only get half as much Adam that way. Do you kill the Little Sisters in order to enhance your own survivability, or are you feeling merciful today?
The storyline shares that same multifaceted approach. There are several survivors in Rapture, from Andrew Ryan himself to a man who calls himself “Atlas,” who wants you to help him reach his family in another part of the city. Each of these survivors has a viewpoint and an agenda, and none of them are obviously right or obviously wrong. Ryan is an idealist; he's an elitist scumbag who thinks you're a KGB agent, but an idealist nonetheless. Tanenbaum, the woman who created the Little Sisters, is a classic sociopath, but offers you the option to fix her mistakes and save the Sisters' lives. Atlas seems to be on your side, but urges you to kill the Sisters and, eventually, to kill Andrew Ryan himself; he's strangely bloodthirsty. BioShock is very much a game about decisions, and about playing sides against the middle.
I've played through the first area of the game, and it left me very curious about what else there is. Why does the hero have tattoos of chains on his wrists? What else is lurking within the other areas within Rapture? What is the reward Tanenbaum is promising you? When you cure a Little Sister, she crawls into an air vent; where does she go, and is she really cured? What are the Big Daddies? If using plasmids too much drives the user insane, is what you're doing considered “too much”?
When BioShock hits shelves, I'll be there looking for some answers. I'm a little hooked now.
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