Genre: First-Person Shooter
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: 2K Boston/2K Australia
Release Date: August 21, 2007
One of the greatest forgotten gems in PC gaming is Irrational Games and Looking Glass Studios' fantastic System Shock 2. Combining a first-person shooter with RPG elements, an engrossing storyline, and some of the creepiest locations in video game history, it was a masterpiece, but it had one unfortunate problem: It came out not too long after the original Half-Life, and despite fantastic reviews, it was mostly missed by the average gamer.
While Looking Glass Studio is no more, Irrational Games (now known as 2K Boston and 2K Australia) is still around, and they have another ace up their sleeve: System Shock's spiritual successor, BioShock. It's not directly connected to System Shock in any way, but in every regard except the plot, BioShock feels like a new game in the System Shock franchise. Fans of the series will know this is a very good thing, and newcomers are in for a pleasant surprise.
Set in 1960, BioShock places you in the role of an everyday fellow named Jack, who is the sole survivor when the airplane on which he is traveling crashes into the sea. His only chance to avoid death is to enter a nearby lighthouse, which sits on a rock in the middle of the ocean. The lighthouse turns out to be the entrance to Rapture, an enormous undersea city situated on the bottom of the ocean. Created by Andrew Ryan, Rapture is a place where the "elite" of society —the artists, poets and geniuses — could come and be free of the "peons" of humanity. However, not too long after Rapture was founded, a mysterious substance known as Adam was discovered, which had the ability to allow the geniuses to rewrite their very genetic code. They made themselves smarter, faster, stronger, and gave themselves fantastic powers and untold beauty. However, when the Adam ran out, Rapture descended into a civil war that tore apart the city, turning its remaining inhabitants into desperate, violent scavengers. This is the city that Jack encounters after he descends from the lighthouse, and his only hope is with Atlas, an unspliced survivor of the civil war, who simply seeks to escape with his family.
Jack himself is a silent protagonist, so most of the game's story is told through other means. Except for a few rare occasions, Jack doesn't interact with another human being on Rapture, instead choosing to communicate through his shortwave radio. While this helps to advance the plot and allow Jack to learn more about the current situation, the real history comes from the hidden diaries that he finds around the city. Each one contains a snippet of recorded history about the doomed city, and while some of these diaries are required to advance the game, most are simply there to flesh out the story. If something seems bizarre or illogical, there's probably an explanation for it in a diary entry somewhere. Much like System Shock 2, these diaries are not only interesting, but also creepy, and they will often end with a disturbing new viewpoint.
Not long after you arrive in Rapture, you get your very first plasmid, which are special Adam cocktails that Jack injects himself with in order to gain special abilities. These abilities are incredibly varied; one lets Jack shoot fire from his hand, another turns him into a hive for a nest of very nasty bees, while yet another sends jets of electricity from his body every time an enemy hits him. Plasmids are divided into one of four types, granting boosts ranging from the aforementioned abilities to more passive things, such as increased defense or faster walking speed. While Jack is limited in the number of plasmids he can splice at one time, he can switch plasmids whenever he wants at any of the Gene Banks located throughout the city. Be warned, however, that some plasmids require Eve, a glowing blue substance that serves as the game's mana. Your Eve bar is located directly below Jack's health bar, and it drains a bit every time you use a plasmid; run out, and those plasmids are worthless. Luckily, Eve is incredibly common, so running out is rarely a worry.
While most of the plasmids are rather straightforward, there are a number of them that can be used in rather interesting ways around the environment. The Electro Bolt plasmids, for example, can be used to stun enemies, short-circuit machines or can be used on a pool to kill everything unfortunate enough to be standing inside it. The Winter Blast can turn enemies to ice, of course, but can also be used to slow down liquids, making hacking machines easier. These extra ways to use plasmids are very neat and offer a wide variety of options to players to get through situations. You can simply beat an enemy with a wrench, lure it into a trap, sneak by, or whatever comes to mind.
Of course, plasmids are not all that your character can use to defend himself. A wide variety of weaponry is available, and while there is nothing particularly innovative in this regard (pistol, shotgun, grenade launcher, flame thrower, etc.), the weapons are still a bit more interesting and complex than your usual FPS arsenal. For starters, each weapon has different kinds of available ammunition. The machine gun can be modified to fire armor-piercing or anti-personnel bullets, and the shotgun can be given explosive or even anti-machine electric shells. The weapons can be further modified with unique upgrades that change the look and function.
While Jack can find items lying around, the easiest way to upgrade his arsenal is to hit the many vending machines scattered throughout the city. Most vending machines require cold, hard cash to operate, but The Gatherer's Garden, where Jack can purchase new plasmids, requires Adam as payment, while the Invent-U kiosks are free, but require Jack to have found certain supplies. Other than their currency, all vending machines function identically and share a common vulnerability to hacking.
Hacking is perhaps the most valuable tool in your inventory in BioShock. When near a machine, Jack can attempt to rewire it to work in his favor, which can be done in one of three ways. The easiest is to use an Auto-Hacking device, which hacks the machine at the touch of a button, although it completely uses up the device. Jack can choose to buy out the machine by paying a specific amount of cash, but if either of the above options fails, Jack can choose to do things manually. Hacking a machine involves playing a rather simple mini-game. You move pipes around a square, trying to connect one end of the square to the other using the pipes; all the while, liquid is slowly crawling through the connected pipes. Go too slow and don't create a path before the liquid reaches a dead end, and the machine short-circuits, doing a nasty bit of damage to Jack. He also has to beware of Alarm Tiles, which summon security robots, and Overload Panels, which not only make the machine short-circuit, but drain all but the tiniest fraction of Jack's health.
The primary foes you'll face in Rapture are Splicers — folks who've had too much Adam and need it just to survive. Since Jack carries Adam, and Andrew Ryan has placed a significant bounty on his head, the Splicers are quite eager to take him down. While there isn't a great variety to the Splicers (there are only five kinds), they're some of the cleverest foes you'll ever face in a video game. They're fast and agile, incredibly accurate with their guns, and quite capable of sneaking around your character and attacking from your blind spots. Injured Splicers will even use the medical machines located around the area to heal themselves.
In addition to Splicers, Jack also has to contend with Rapture's security robots, which are technically enemies, but actually end up as some of his very best friends. An Electro-Bolt, Electric Shell or other sort of shock will stun any of these machines, and once stunned, Jack can hack into them so that they'll fight on his side. Turrets fire on his enemies, and security cameras send robots after his enemies instead of him. This actually gets a bit tiresome after a while because rather than being a threat, the various mechanical objects around the city simply make it easier for Jack's already-formidable arsenal to absolutely devastate his foes. Later on, Jack actually earns the ability to hack turrets at the push of a button, turning the already-toothless enemies into pure jokes.
The most deadly enemy you'll face is the Big Daddy, a giant Adam-enriched brute in an old-fashioned dive suit. Fighting a Big Daddy is a task on par with, if not more difficult, than any of BioShock's boss fights. The reasons for this are manyfold. Big Daddies are tough; they can soak up a staggering amount of damage and shrug off explosives and bullets. Even plasmids barely faze them. Big Daddies are fast; when one is angry at you, it'll get in your face and knock you for a loop in a matter of seconds. The most important reason, though, is that Big Daddies hit like a Mack truck. No other enemy in the game, not even the final boss, can even approach the damage caused by an angry Big Daddy.
With all these warnings, why bother going after a Big Daddy? The reason is Little Sisters. Although they're effectively invincible to regular damage, Little Sisters can't defend themselves at all, and anyone who wants to come along and plunder their Adam can do so with ease, although it costs the Little Sisters their lives. Since Adam is so important to Rapture, the Big Daddies were created to guard the Little Sisters, and if you want to get to the Little Sister, you've got to go through the Big Daddy. Once you've taken down a Big Daddy, you can harvest the Little Sister for Adam, or free her from her enslavement, which earns you less Adam but greater rewards down the line.
The Little Sister choice is supposed to be one of the biggest ones you make in BioShock, but in all honestly, it really isn't. Even if you chose to forego killing the Little Sisters, you're later rewarded with large quantities of Adam and super-rare items as "gifts" from the freed Sisters. Furthermore, Adam is plentiful. While there isn't enough to buy every single plasmid in the game, there is more than enough to turn Jack into an unstoppable killing machine and gain all but the most useless of plasmids. The biggest influence the Little Sisters have is in deciding which ending you'll get. It really takes the bite out of the moral decision when there is no real reason to kill Little Sisters other than because you can.
You have another option aside from killing enemies. Almost every foe in the game, with the exception of the final boss, can be researched, which is a fairly simple procedure. You take a picture of the enemy, it's graded (A, B or C), and you're awarded a specific amount of Research Points for it. Earn enough points in a specific enemy species, and you unlock new abilities for Jack, ranging from doing more damage to researched enemies, to more useful things, like +50% damage from wrench attacks and increased health and Eve. The problem with the Research feature is that it isn't particularly well designed. Determining what gets a high-scoring photo or a low-scoring photo isn't difficult, but the photo's score doesn't really matter because film is incredibly cheap. Just take a ton of photos, and eventually the research bonus will be unlocked, and you repeat as necessary. While it can be fun to attempt to get a nice photo, it is neither useful nor necessary to risk damage to do so. Just keep snapping photos and receive the power-ups.
If BioShock has one notable flaw, it lies in the game's difficulty level, or lack thereof. On the normal difficulty level, it's just a bit too easy. It is still fun, but once you start getting a solid number of plasmids, you can tear through every Splicer in your way as if they were nothing. By the end of the game, I was using the default wrench on every enemy, not because I needed to save ammo, but because my plasmids made the Wrench so ridiculously powerful that it would have taken me longer to kill Splicers with a gun. I was rarely using many of the plasmids or alternate weapon types available to me — only the wrench, Electro Bolt and the occasional grenade and armor-piercing bullets for the Big Daddies. A game being easy isn't a tremendous flaw, but considering the wide variety of options available to you in defeat foes, it's rather wearisome that the straightforward smash-and-grab technique is the most effective. The game does offer a hard mode, however, for those gamers eager to up the ante a bit, but the differences between the modes are not quite enough to give experienced players a much harder time, although it does encourage the use of some of the lesser-used plasmids.
Even death in BioShock only slows you down for a second. If you should die, you instantly respawn in a Vita Chamber, which are scattered all around the city and function as checkpoints. The moment you die, you are revived inside one. If you've ever played System Shock 2, they're much like the Quantum Reconstruction Chambers, only a bit more powerful, thanks to the differences between the two games. In all honesty, the Vita Chambers are the one thing in BioShock that doesn't fit. It's rather hard to be scared of a Splicer when you know death doesn't really matter, and you'll be back again and fighting fit in a matter of seconds. The same doesn't go for your enemies, however, and they'll retain any damage they took during the initial melee. They're basically ignored by the plot, even in elements where it seems like they should come into play, and in general, feel very out of place. While most other areas of Rapture manage to blend very well, the Vita Chambers feel like part of a video game. Even the diary that has details about the Vita Chambers doesn't explain anything well enough to make them seem less out of place. It isn't quite as bad as Prey's system of avoiding death, but somehow, it takes the bite out of the enemies when you realize that it's impossible for them to fully kill you.
Rapture, for all its decay, is a beautiful place. From the moment the game starts, BioShock does its very best to awe you with the bygone grandeur of the city. The graphics themselves are excellent, of course, but the detail is where BioShock really shines. Rapture feels like a city destroyed by its own citizens, and every little element you see, from an overturned trashcan to a ravaged apartment building, really helps to reinforce this. The character models are solid and well detailed. Splicers wear tattered clothes and evening masks to disguise their deformities, and when they drag their weapons along the ground, sparks fly. If you use fire on enemies, they'll actually be burned when the fire is out. Things like this really bring Rapture to life. Screenshots honestly can't do BioShock justice, and it has to be seen in full motion to really understand
While the graphics in BioShock are excellent, the real credit should go to its audio design. Much like System Shock 2, BioShock realizes that hearing something is far scarier than seeing it. Whispers from Splicers off-screen, the scrape of metal against metal from somewhere behind you and the odd, whale-like sounds of a Big Daddy all combine to bring about a tension far greater than anything experienced. It's one thing to see a Splicer running ahead of you, but it's another to hear it running through the water, catch the briefest glimpse of a shadow and then wonder exactly where it's hiding. What little music the game has is put to great effect. Hearing a creepy slightly too-slow version of "Beyond the Sea" as you wander through a destroyed bar does wonders for the atmosphere.
Bioshock is a must-buy title for the Xbox 360. A few minor problems aside, it is simply a fantastic game; the atmosphere is excellent, the plotline is intriguing, and the graphics and sound design are phenomenal. Simply put, if you're at all curious about the game and you're an Xbox 360 owner, BioShock is for you. Other than being a bit too short and easy, BioShock does everything right. Although Halo 3 is due out later this year, it's going to have a hard time matching the fantastic single-player experience that BioShock provides.
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