Genre: First-Person Shooter/Adventure
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: August 21, 2007
From the moment your plane plunges into the Atlantic at the start of the game, you know you're playing an A-list game with superb writing and art direction. The voice acting is natural, the soundtrack is tense, and the graphics are spectacular. Without question, BioShock is a superb gaming experience and should not be missed by fans of the new breed of FPS/RPG hybrids.
Still, as much as I enjoyed this title, I do not share the widely held view that its gameplay is revolutionary in some respect. BioShock is made up mostly of elements we've all seen before. For example, instead of having a number of magic spells at your disposal, you have access to substances that alter your genetic makeup. The result of applying a so-called "plasmid" is simply the acquisition of what amounts to a magic spell —fireballs, lightning bolts, freezing spells, and so forth. What sets BioShock apart are its production values, flawless presentation, and beautiful artwork.
BioShock will have great appeal to the masses and should haul in a ton of well-deserved cash. Genre purists, however, should read on before purchasing. While billed as a shooter, the guns are rudimentary and imprecise (appropriate to the time period), and you'll spend just as much time using magic as you will shooting. The game is played from a first-person perspective, but shooting bad guys is not really what the game is about. On the other side of the coin, RPG players may be disappointed by the limited dialogue and character development options, though both are present to some degree.
The storyline is the best to come along in a FPS game since Half-Life 2. The year is 1960. As you flip wistfully through some old photographs in your wallet, your plane crashes and leaves you neck-deep in the Atlantic. You swim to a nearby lighthouse-like structure, where you discover an eerie transportation vessel that takes you to a man-made city at the bottom of the ocean. The city is called Rapture, and it was created as a refuge and underwater paradise for forward-thinking scientists.
When you arrive, you realize that Rapture has evolved into a watery hell. Years of genetic experimentation has brought about the decline of civil society, and the streets are full of junkies who mean to do you harm. Your task is to unravel the mysteries of Rapture and escape intact.
The action is fast-paced, though not too fast to enjoy the scenery, which is a good thing, because the scenery in Rapture is the highlight of the game. Rapture is beautifully created in a colorful art-deco-inspired style. Water is everywhere as you would expect in an underwater city, and it has never looked better. The scenery is varied and fascinating, which is a remarkable accomplishment in a genre that tends to favor drab corridors and repetitive levels. You'll enter lush gardens, spooky graveyards, colorful street markets, and dark tunnels. The only consistency in your surroundings is that water is dripping nearby and everything looks great on your monitor.
As you've undoubtedly seen in the screenshots, a colossal figure clad in a deep sea diving helmet and armed with a giant drill — the Big Daddy — is BioShock's most prominent and imposing baddie. The role of the Big Daddy is to escort and protect the Little Sisters, demonic little girls who seem cute and cuddly until they plunge a giant syringe into a corpse's chest to extract the precious "Adam," a substance discovered to have genetic-enhancing qualities.
And protect the Little Sisters they do! Don't be lulled into assuming the Big Daddies, with their massive bulk, deep voices, and heavy footsteps are slow. The moment they detect a threat to a Little Sister, they charge at you at speeds you can't match, with a fury that is really quite intimidating. These guys are tough, believe me.
If you have the firepower and patience to take down a Big Daddy, the Little Sister will be left in your custody. What to do with her is up to you: You can harvest the sea slug attached to her innards, a process that yields maximum Adam for you (Adam points can be redeemed for special skills and powers) but kills the girl in the process. Alternatively, you can set her free in exchange for a promised reward later in the game. This supposedly creates a moral dilemma for the player, though I admit to having no pangs of guilt whatsoever by repeatedly selecting the "harvest" option.
While BioShock boasts some unusual and interesting enemies, by far the most common enemy encounter will be with the "splicers," which are basically your standard zombies. As the story goes, the splicers are genetically mutated humans who are exhibiting signs of having consumed a little too much Adam, the material enabling the genetic modifications. While I would have enjoyed more variety among Rapture's evil denizens, at least the splicers come in several different flavors. Some toss grenades at you, others walk on the ceiling (yes, it is most disconcerting to come across this particular breed), and others are like ghosts and disappear and reappear for maximum "Boo!" effect.
One of BioShock's strengths are the many ways in which you can bring down your opponents. Most of the game's standard weapons can be upgraded at a kiosk, and the improvements are varied and range from increasing the clip size to granting you invulnerability to your own grenades. "Plasmids" provide a wide range of magical (OK, genetic) abilities, including such gems as "Enrage," which will cause your target to attack anyone in his immediate vicinity, and telekinesis, which allows you to manipulate objects in your environment and pull off tricks such as catching an enemy grenade and tossing it back to its original owner (fun!).
Keeping an eye on your surroundings will open the door to more creative methods. If you have both the "Incinerate" and "Electro Bolt" plasmids, for example, you can light a splicer on fire, and then watch him run to a nearby pool to douse the flames. While he's doing that, you can direct a bolt of electric current into the pool and electrocute him. For additional emphasis, you can finish him off with a quick knock to the head from your wrench.
If he's still moving at that point (he won't be, but let's keep the example going), you can direct a swarm of bees to attack him! I generally like my rifles, but I have to admit "Insect Swarm" was a blast to use. Why kill your enemies quickly when you can first annoy them for prolonged periods? It is hilarious to watch a gruesome splicer dance around frantically while trying to wave off a swarm of hornets.
The game does have its slow parts. In true RPG fashion, you must search everywhere to collect various items, including money, potions, quest items, ammunition, and the like. This means that you basically have to approach every dead body, every crate, and every barrel and manually "search" them for goods.
Another low point for me was the monotonous hacking system. Several machines in the game can be hacked, with results ranging from lowering a vending machine's prices to confusing a turret into attacking an unintended party. Unfortunately, "hacking" consists of the same mundane puzzle over and over again, with little variety except for the speed at which you must complete the puzzle.
BioShock's death system — or lack thereof — is a mixed blessing. You don't die in Rapture. Instead, you are regenerated in a chamber and re-released into the world exactly as you left it. The chambers are spaced fairly close together, so you're never too far from the action when you are revived. This is convenient, but it removes the challenge of completing the more difficult sections of the game. Instead of learning to refine your strategy, the lack of any meaningful consequences to "dying" will lead most players to simply return to an area as many times as necessary to get through it, which usually isn't long, since the enemies don't regenerate their health when the player is regenerated.
While not exactly perfect, BioShock is not to be missed. From the superb visual design to the enchanting audio soundtrack, this futuristic period piece is a delight to play and accomplishes a rare feat for a video game: It leaves you with plenty of weighty existential questions to ponder.
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