Written : Monday, August 27, 2007
By: Steve Klinger (GT: graf1k)
I told you not to self-medicate!
Starting in 1997 as a group that splintered off from Looking Glass Studios, Ken Levine, Jonathan Chey, and Robert Fermier started Irrational Games soon after finishing work on Thief: The Dark Project for PC. Two years later, Irrational debuted with their first game under the new banner with System Shock 2, a fantastic first-person Action RPG with a rich story that was scary as hell. Despite much critical acclaim, System Shock 2 was overshadowed at retail by the original Half Life game. With the release of Bioshock, in many ways a spiritual successor to System Shock 2, Irrational has a chance to shine and for the world at large to take notice of them and their game. It Bioshock up to the challenge? Well yes frankly, and then some.
The story of Bioshock begins simply enough with a plane crash over the Atlantic Ocean. You take control of your character after a short cinematic that is blended so well with the start of gameplay, you may not be aware the game has started. You swim to the safety of a lighthouse oddly placed in middle of the ocean and descend to find an entirely different world. Where you were going or who you are no longer matter. You are in Rapture now, a place that is as fundamentally far away from normal society as it is physically. A place where morality is seen as a hindrance, and the ideal of "No God, No Kings, Just Man" echoes through every aspect of life here. Meant to be the ultimate free city where science can prevail without the interference of religion, where capitalism in its truest form could be practiced, something terribly wrong has happened in the mean time. At some point, a war broke out and over time the medical advances that made life in Rapture better became weaponized and the citizens of Rapture ended up trading their bodies, minds, and ultimately their humanity for Adam. Now they roam Rapture, most covering their face with masks, ashamed of what they've become, and live solely to further splice themselves, even if it means killing to do so.
You skin that smoke-wagon and see what happens...
The city of Rapture is one of the most original settings in the annals of gaming. Everything about the environment and the city are completely original and fresh and there is very little here reminiscent of any FPS, or any game really, to date. The city of Rapture has been built in the fabulous Art Deco style popularized during the 1930s with sleek, clean lines and a distinctive style that is so far and away from the grey corridors of most first-person shooters, it's almost hard to believe Bioshock is part of the same genre. The art direction is simply stunning, mixing the Art Deco style with the decay and rot you'd expect in a city that's in the throws of it's darkest days. It's very much surreal at times to just stop and think of what you are seeing and what has happened, and is happening in Rapture. Steeped very much in the world of writer Ayn Rand, the game still has an other-worldly quality; like a bad dream of what that world would be. The atmosphere is so well established that it really seems the guys at Irrational are playing on another level completely than the industry at large. Even with a couple rather obvious twists, the plot is head and shoulders above 99.9% of games out there and honestly is even superior to the majority of Hollywood movies these days. It's truly an accomplishment worth noting and kudos to the guys at Irrational for taking the time to get it right.
The antagonist, if you can call him that, is Andrew Ryan, the man responsible for this failed utopia. A rich industrialist of some kind, Ryan set out to create the city of his dreams at the bottom of the ocean, where governments could not intervene or fight him for control. A city in which the artist is free to practice and redefine art as they see fit, where medicine and science move forward unhindered. Where each person works solely for their own benefit and happiness and not society, nor anyone else. Where hedonism is seen as a goal and not a negative character quality. Where the question is always "Can we do this?" and never "Should we do this?". Perhaps it was this core ideal of the people and their leader that led to the downfall of Rapture, as by the time you arrive, the place has gone from the ideal society, the height of modern and progressive thinking and ideals, to a brutal world of kill-or-be-killed where survival at any cost is the only monkey to feed. Well that, and a need for Adam, the genetic material that keeps Rapture humming these days. As your good friend Atlas will tell you "everybody needs it, everybody wants it". Adam is the new currency of Rapture and to get some, you are going to have to get your hands dirty.
Always aim for the crotch
The only way to obtain Adam is to harvest it out of the dead inhabitants of Rapture that have been 'spliced' with Plasmids. Of course, you yourself cannot harvest Adam, so you'll need the help of a Little Sister, small girls genetically modified to extract and process the Adam into a usable form again. There's only one problem. They aren't going to give it up willingly and they all have a bodyguard. Yes, the Little Sisters roll with a posse (6'5, 600lbs) and they are ready to do damage if you even come near the child. Called Big Daddies, they are hulking beasts in what look like old diving suits. Being that you'll need Adam to survive Rapture, you'll eventually have to toe it with a Big Daddy if you want a chance at the Little Sisters. They are effectively roaming mini-bosses and certainly are no pushovers so you best be ready if you piss on their foot by accident. If, or I should say, when a Big Daddy kills you, you'll respawn in the nearest Vita-Chamber which basically serve as the checkpoints in Bioshock. The Vita-Chambers have been unfavorably compared to how death is handled in Prey, in that there is little penalty for death as you'll maintain all your belongings and enemies will have the same level of health as when you died. Personally I didn't find it in anyway a negative thing and honestly, it's nowhere near as 'cheap' as Prey in that respect. If you do manage to fell a Big Daddy though, the game then presents you with quite the moral dilemma; something severely lacking in videogames. You can either 'harvest' the Little Sister and receive double your reward of Adam, or you can save these innocent little girls from the life the sick and twisted society of Rapture has forced upon them. The decision you make is one of the pivotal aspects of Bioshock and may determine the outcome for you and others as well.
Using the aforementioned Adam, you can purchase any number or genetic modifications called Plasmids, or gene tonics that do everything from emitting a static discharge to shock enemies when you are hit, to making hacking security cameras, safes, and enemy turrets easier. There is even a gene tonic called 'Boozehound' that lets you effectively turn alcohol into health and Eve. Eve is basically the 'mana' in Bioshock and is what powers your Plasmids. The Plasmids themselves are as varied as the gene tonics. The different Plasmids will allow you to, among other things, shoot fire, ice and electricity from your hand, hypnotize a Big Daddy, or even catch and throw objects with Telekinesis. As you progress through the game, you can purchase new and different Plasmids and tonics at vending machines called 'Gatherers' Garden', or you can find them scattered throughout the world of Rapture. The other thing you'll want to keep an eye out for throughout the game are audio recordings that, while not required listening, offer a fascinating glimpse into the history of Rapture and give more of an understanding of how the downfall happened. Before you know it, you'll be hooked and looking for the audio recordings all over before you realize Irrational has pulled a fast one on you and actually has made collecting items fun and something you actually want to do. Ken Levine, you sneaky bastard!
To say Bioshock is a first-person shooter in the truest form is a lie, despite the developer's insistence to the contrary. In fact, to call it 'just a FPS' is doing the game a terrible disservice. Bioshock blends so many different genres together and with such artistry and mastery, the term 'first-person shooter' is just too small and petty for it anymore. As far as game conventions go, Bioshock owes as much to Oblivion as it does to Half Life 2; maybe more. The different gene tonics and Plasmids give Bioshock as much variety as you can handle. While there are no 'classes' in Bioshock, you can use the gene tonics to alter your character to almost no end. With a total of over 70 tonics and plasmids in the game, the combination and customization possibilities are staggering. The combat provides such a bevy of choices in how to dispatch your foe, it could come as quite a shock for someone expecting 'Doom Under-the-Sea'. The multiple Plasmids, gene tonics and the ability to upgrade weapons makes for some interesting combinations of combat tactics and, coupled with the various types of weapons and ammo available, make for combat that always feels fresh. You can, for instance, hit an enemy with Incinerate and follow them as they run for the nearest body of water to put themselves out and then hit the water with Electro Bolt to finish them off. Or maybe you'd prefer to hack a nearby turret and hit one of the splicers in a group with enrage to set them against each other while the turret finishes them off for you. The choice is yours and are only limited by your imagination.
Is it cold in here? My nipples feel a little hard.
Irrational, besides creating an engrossing and atmospheric world and a fascinatingly captivating story, also completely nail the technical aspects of nearly everything in Bioshock. The controls are effective and natural. Weapon switching especially is handled well considering the limited real estate of a controller and the number of options available. Plasmids are controlled with the left bumper and trigger while guns are handled with the right bumper and trigger, with the bumper in both cases used to cycle through your arsenal. This is slightly problematic though once you build up the number of your Plasmids and weapons later in the game. Luckily Irrational thought of that and so holding either bumper down will bring up a wheel with all your weapons or Plasmids easily available. For your guns, you use the d-pad to swap weapon ammo. Combat itself is smooth and has no real glaring problems, although with all the options available, you may find yourself flummoxed by all your options in the heat of battle, especially with the Big Daddies.
The audio direction is flawless. Starting with the music which warps and changes to fit each area of Rapture and adds significantly to the atmosphere that is so painstakingly established by every other aspect of the game. Walk into one area and there will be a radio playing a little jazz tune that just makes the entire scene feel that much creepier. Little things in the sound design like the scrape of the hooks of the spider splicers will send a chill down your spine, while the hulking sound of the Big Daddies remind you just how puny you are compared to them, despite your arsenal. The voice acting is flawless as well. From the accents of characters from every corner of the world to the period terminology used by some of the characters just further serve to convince you this place and what's happening in it, are real. The eerie babbling to themselves of the splicers as you sneak up on them remind you that, despite their current state, these were once people. You may find yourself pitying their plight, even as you kill them. Even the sound effects and ambient noises are perfect. Everything from the hum of your hand radio before an incoming message to the noises made by the vending machines throughout the game where you'll find health and ammo all sound authentic.
To say Bioshock looks beautiful would be an understatement. From the fabulous art style to the water that is easily the most beautiful and real looking in a game to date, everything about Bioshock's visuals just pops. The environments are beautifully complex and are given that extra attention to detail that makes Rapture feel like a real place and feeds into the atmosphere of the game perfectly. Bioshock makes full use of the Xbox 360's graphical power and it shows. The textures are the best looking and most detailed since Gears of War and at times looks even better, possibly because of the art direction. Character models look great as do animations, although the number of animations is rather limited for most of the splicers and could have done with some more variety. Still, each type of splicer has unique animations and almost all the splicers themselves look completely unique, an accomplishment in it's own right considering the number of them. The show-stopper of Bioshock though is undoubtedly the water. From the opening scene of the game swimming in the ocean, to the leaking tunnels, puddles, and even the water rushing through a broken bulkhead door, the water is phenomenal looking. Irrational must have spent months on getting everything from the flow, viscosity and even behavior of water right, because it looks real. Not realistic. Real.
I think we've sprung a leak, Captain!
That said, Bioshock does have a couple graphical flaws. There are moments during the game where textures obviously have not loaded and you'll be starring at basic geometry or a crude, very low-res texture. A similar phenomenon happens in Gears of War sometimes during multiplayer or co-op play, so it may have to do with the Unreal Engine. Regardless, it's not a huge flaw but enough sometimes to tear down the mood and atmosphere the game so expertly establishes. Something else that isn't really a flaw but is rather annoying is Irrational's choice to make Bioshock standard for 4:3 ratio screens and then crop the top and bottom for people with a 16:9 ratio screen, rather than doing the opposite, like most games. It wouldn't be that big of a deal except, being on the 360, the game should have been designed with HDTVs in mind, meaning a 16:9 ratio. Word is Irrational is working on a patch. Again, not the end of the world, but a slight flaw that keeps the game from being perfect.
Irrational takes the 'the total package' mantra even further by coming up with some fun and inventive achievements. Being that Bioshock is a single player only game, obviously the achievements reflect as such. To look at them, they aren't terribly original achievements, but nonetheless, it's obvious thought was put into them. It would be false to say that Bioshock is an easy 1000 points and honestly anybody looking at this game solely for achievement whoring should be ashamed. That said, because of the quality of the game, you won't mind if you have to play through the game multiple times to earn all the achievements, although for the truly keen player, all 50 achievements can be had in one play-through if you are mindful of them. Besides achievements for collecting all audio messages, maxing out all tonic and Plasmid tracks and fully upgrading all your weapons, there are also achievements for completing research with a camera you'll find on your journey through Rapture. To do so, you just snap pictures of different types of enemy splicers, Big Daddies, Little Sisters and the like. Each picture is graded according to how good or bad it is, and there's even a gene tonic to help with this as well. There are also a number of secret achievements that are all based on your progress through the game. All in all, a very competent set of achievements.
Despite a couple graphical flaws and one poor decision regarding video scaling by Irrational, Bioshock is easily the best game of 2007 thus far to hit the Xbox 360. At 20-25 hours it isn't terribly long, but it's one of those games that everyone should own. Even with stiff competition from games like Halo 3, Mass Effect and Assassin's Creed, Bioshock stands a very good chance of being the best game of the year on the 360, or any platform for that matter. Regardless of if wins such accolades or not, it's a game that should not be overlooked by anyone.
Bells, whistles, explosions; Bioshock has them all and they all sound fantastic. If only every developer put the effort and attention to detail into audio that Irrational has, there'd finally be peace in the Middle East. Well, no there wouldn't but man would games be so much better!
Depending on your preference, it's either the best or second best looking game on the Xbox 360 to date. What more is there to say? Graphics whores might wee themselves a little when they see the water in Bioshock. Now if only they could do something about that same texture loading problem it shares that that other really good looking game...
The controls are well done and natural feeling. The menus are clean and your guide provides most of the information you want. The map is a bit confusing at first, but once you realize how it works, it's actually rather inventive and well done.
Excellent story, engrossing mood and atmosphere couple together to provide one of the most polished gaming experiences on the 360 to date. Everything from the menus to the vending machine in the games all gel perfectly with the style of the game and make the experience that much more cohesive. About the only problem is a strange syncing issue with the subtitles.
While not terribly original, the achievements are so masterfully integrated into the game experience, it won't matter much that they are reminiscent of most FPS or action adventure games we've seen. Good use of the secret achievements so as to not totally ruin the plot of the game.
Bioshock is from beginning to end, a modern day gaming masterpiece. Simply put, it's one of the greatest games of the current era and serves as a high watermark that may not be surpassed for years to come. From the compelling plot and completely convincing atmosphere to the fantastic graphics and attention to detail, Bioshock is the total package. It may have the occasional graphical problem, but in the grand scheme of things, they are all paled by the scope and grandeur of the rest of the game. Much like Atlas Shrugged was for Ayn Rand, who's writing so greatly influenced him, Bioshock is Ken Levine's magnum opus and I for one thank him and Irrational for this great experience. Now, would you kindly go out and buy it already?