Review: What happens in Rapture stays in Rapture
It wouldn't be fair to say Bioshock came out of nowhere, but in many ways, it did. Irrational Games ? now known as 2K Boston ? is known for deep, thought-provoking titles such as the PC only System Shock series, but none of their games are mentioned in the same breath as other talented development houses, likely due to their lack of ties to console gaming. So Bioshock was merely another great game coming from a great developer that likely wouldn't be given much attention, especially on the Xbox 360 given Halo 3's close release. But then, the demo hit. And it was great. Who knows how many more people hopped on the Bioshock train then, but clearly the game went from just another great fall 2007 release to a legitimate contender for the Game of the Year throne. The amazing thing? The demo doesn't even tell the whole story, doesn't come close to defining what Bioshock is. There's so many great things about it that the few minor misgivings are small potatoes ? the outstanding narrative and fantastic visual style pull you in, and the deep, yet accessible gameplay keeps you there.
Andrew Ryan could be considered many things ? angry, visionary, even a prophet. These days, however, he's angry. The mastermind behind Rapture, an underwater, sealed-away city, Ryan has seen his utopia turn into a living hell, a result of the backfiring of his governmental concepts ? which is basically total anarchy. Thanks to scientists who lack morals ? and the governing bodies to stop weird research ? people are capable of ?splicing? their genes and becoming basically freaks. Unfortunately, the main character ? a voiceless, personalty-absent protagonist named Jack (not Bauer, but imagine how cool that might be) is in a plane crash and ends up in Rapture at the peak of the war of ideals that broke out thanks to ADAM ? a substance that basically keeps the denizens of Rapture alive and functioning. Jack ends up making acquaintances with a man known only as Atlas (no doubt a reference to the book Atlas Shrugged, a major influence on Bioshock), and the goal, of course, is to escape Rapture and find salvation on dry land. Saying anything more would spoil what is a sparkling plot, full of great characters and plenty of social commentary that's relevant today, subtle as it might be to some. Needless to say, things are a lot more complicated than merely escaping a paradise turned nightmare.
Bioshock's core gameplay isn't totally original, but instead it simply takes the best of different genres and makes it work. At the beginning of the game (as those who played the demo recall), you get a mere wrench, which is probably the best go-to weapon in the game, making a lot of the adventure feel like a more glamorous version of Condemned. This is especially true when dealing with the splicers, who maintain many of the same sneaky tendencies that the addicts did in that game. Of course, there are guns in the game, but ammo is scarce and relying on them too much leads to not having any leftover for when you really need it, so calling it a first-person shooter wouldn't be correct. Instead, the bulk of the game revolves around Plasmids, which function like magic attacks in an RPG, such as Oblivion. While magic attacks might seem weird in a realistic setting, in truth it's tied up well thanks to the theme of self-evolution and improvement that you see demonstrated and discussed all around Rapture. So, in many ways Bioshock's gameplay isn't new or anything, where it shines is how it all comes together to present a means to an end ? a fun gameplay system that drives you through Rapture and uncovers the plot.
What really makes the combat shine is the sheer variety of the game ? there's more than one way to skin a cat here. Some gamers, crazy as they seem, might just use a wrench all the time and whack away, hoping to kill before being killed. Others might rely on guns more than necessary, taking a risk but enjoying themselves. Others might use Plasmids to cause the damage. The lightning Plasmid is a top ally for many reasons; connect with a splicer and they'll stand in place being shocked, leaving you to wrench them close for a kill. Or you can use it to shock a turret, or a camera, or a bot, and then hack them (by either buying them out, using an auto hack tool, or just doing the hacking mini-game) to do your bidding. Even more fun, if you see some splicers standing in a puddle of water...well I'm sure you can figure out what happens next. It's one of Bioshock's most important virtues ? the ability to accomplish a task in different ways.
There's an implied linearity to progressing through the game; you are told to go to a specific area and accomplish a task and then move to the next. By default the game has a quest arrow to guide you ? turn it off for maximum enjoyment. But without exploration you'll miss out on a lot. While some might groan, there is a collect-a-thon out there for audio diaries left by the central characters of Rapture which do a great job of explaining the backstory of Rapture, to understand why it fell into this mess and where everything went wrong. There's over 100 in total, many hidden away, in rooms and locations that you may not visit if simply running through the game. Not only that, scattered about are important Gene Tonics which serve as the engine for character customization. These tonics are tied to almost every aspect of the game ? some increase strength of skills, others make it easier to hack, some make first aid kits more effective, and the like. These tonics can also be invented with a U-Invent machine (a simple system where if you have the right material you can create something) or discovered when taking research photographs (yet another pastime).
The problem is, at the outset you can only use 2 Plasmids or 2 Gene Tonics in each of their 4 specific tracks, and thus going to a gene swapping machine (yes, seriously) becomes necessary. At least at the outset. Whether your ability to carry more increases depends on how you handle Little Sisters. These creepy little kids run around Rapture and extract ADAM from dead splicers, due to their inherent abilities to harvest the stuff. As they're so tiny they make easy kills, right? Well, no. In order to deal with a Little Sister, you gotta deal with the creepy dude on the box ? a Big Daddy. With their low groan and screen-shaking presence, they're a force to be reckoned with ? strong, fast, and merciless in their attempts to kill you if you mess with his girl. It'll take a lot to eliminate a Big Daddy, but once you do, the Little Sister is, um, ripe for the taking. This ties into the moral challenge of the game; do you harvest their ADAM, killing the girl, or simply rescue them, returning them to normal for a minimal amount of ADAM. That's up for you to decide. Either way, the ADAM you earn goes towards buying Plasmid and Gene Tonic slots as well as purchasing new abilities. Thus if you want to get skilled, you have to take care of the Sisters. But that's the thing... you don't have to. The Big Daddy is not hostile to you without provocation, and you can safely wander around one without riling it up. There's even a Plasmid to take control of one, and have it to do your damage for you... quite an ally.
Though Bioshock is a simply fantastic game in every way, it does have a few issues. The most talked-about issue is the lack of consequence for death. If you die, you just revive in one of those Vita Chambers you'll see all over the place, albeit generally in a poor state making it more feasible to just reload a save (you can save anywhere) and try again. It's almost like the lack of consequence for death in Prey, but at least that game had a crazy mini-game to make it seem like you earned a return trip back to life. Speaking of mini-games, the Hacking mini-game is less a game and more a chore, trying to line up tubes to make sure the water flow reaches its destined point. It makes almost no sense to be included, and it's easier to just use an auto-hack tool or simply buy the hack instead. Finally, unfortunately, the end of the game is probably the worst part. Bioshock isn't a short game, but the last hour or so turns into a fetching mission combined with an escort mission. An escort mission that's not always fun. It still plays out better than most games, but it's certainly not the highpoint of the adventure. Yes, the game also lacks multiplayer, but whatever. It wasn't designed with multiplayer in mind; though a gametype where you are a Big Daddy defending a Little Sister from splicers would rock.
Bioshock makes a case for best artistic style in years, as the game is simply beautiful. There's loads of neon all over the place, and the 1950's era stylings are as unique as it gets. Though much of the levels are actually in ruins, the once-promising Rapture lives on in spirit, with enormous attention to detail. The entire city is alive and really feels like it exists; you can find medical offices, shopping, entertainment, apartment complexes, even mentions of sporting events. It's almost wild how much was placed into the game, so many little things you'll find wandering through. Many of the enemies look similar to each other, which is a bummer, but in many ways it's just filler to the otherwise amazing detail of Rapture itself. Obviously the Big Daddies are massive and creepy as hell to see wandering around, beating on walls looking for Little Sisters to escort ? and because they aren't immediately hostile it's fascinating to watch them go about their business in terms of animations; it's perhaps a bit too real. Of course, for a game that takes place underwater, the water effects are as good as it gets. Bioshock is a rare feat in that it's both technologically and artistically brilliant ? you may spend more time checking out weird details than you think.
Making the great story even better is the awesome voice acting. Everyone plays their part perfectly, and the over 100 audio diaries that tell the backstory scream quality. There's no ham-fisted lines or any sort of cheese; it's serious all the way and matches the peril of Rapture down to the letter. Wandering around the city, you can still hear various announcements over loudspeakers, jingles and crazy lines from the various vending machines (El Ammo Bandito is both wrong and hilarious) music piping from jukeboxes and other sound devices (the soundtrack is loaded with great classical music, which ties into an absolutely amazing sequence in Fort Frolic), and the sounds of Splicers running to and from, plotting attacks. But again, there's nothing like hearing the low groan of a Big Daddy wandering around, and the quiet voice of a Little Sister looking for ADAM.