Gaming genres have become as diverse as film, creating worlds filled with the the most idealistic of intentions or base desires with the stories that many of these explore. But not every title with a glossy cover can deliver a compelling tale from beginning to end, often frustrating the player with a fatal flaw whether it is with broken gameplay or jumping the shark with its narrative. With Bioshock, 2K hopes to bring the kind of experience that is sure to fuel the question of whether “games are art” and have players talking about in the same breath as anything that they have read or have watched on the silver screen.
20,000 Leagues Into Madness
Bioshock wastes little time on an introduction, placing you on a plane somewhere over the Mid-Atlantic in 1960. One crash later, you’re in the drink, swimming towards a lighthouse built atop an outcropping of stone that points to the darkened, night sky with the moon gazing down at the burning water around you. Swimming towards the steps that lead into the structure, you’ll soon find yourself heading down into one man’s vision of paradise.
In the late 1940’s, a genius by the name of Andrew Ryan had decided to leave the surface world behind when it failed to satisfy his own ideals. He set out to build the city of Rapture beneath the waves…a paradise built by the hard work and sheer will of those chosen to live there than by any government or belief in a higher power. But a discovery beneath the waves would eventually upset the careful trappings of Ryan’s underwater Paradise, setting the stage for the player as they stumble upon what is left.
Imagine a Fun Park, Only Everyone is Crazy
Bioshock’s setting is clearly the focus of the game and if you are looking for an atmospheric shooter with all of the trappings of a society gone over the edge and still falling, it should have something for you. Designer Ken Levine has used his experience from System Shock 2 to tell another story where the player is drawn into a world that once held promise for a greater future only to see it burned to the ground by what it became. And if you haven’t played any of the System Shock games, not to worry as Bioshock captures much of what made that series great.
Andrew Ryan, your erstwhile host whose recorded voice greets your descent into Rapture, comes off as a driven man with a vision that no one but he can appreciate…a far darker, more ruthless version of Uncle Walt whose fun park has broken and where the guests feed on what is left. The art deco of the 1960’s inspired environment speaks of pulp sci-fi, casting a long shadow of imagined prosperity across a city dying from within. Recordings made by the citizens of Rapture, both the ordinary and the sadistic, are found scattered in the gardens, shops, and offices that now lay empty and stained with blood…witnesses from behind the curtain of Rapture’s perfect life.
Bioshock is an atmospheric game with the environment easily showing off what the designers have done with the Unreal 3 engine to keep it that way with both the places you’ll go and the creatures that will meet and greet your arrival. There’s quite a collection of psychotic, formerly human, citizens that vaguely remember what they were, each one sharing a stylized look that sets many of them apart and who are more likely to crack your skull than discuss fashion tips. Plenty of period propaganda decorates every scene and looped recordings advertise their wares to an audience that no longer cares. The extensive water effects are easily the most obvious ones in the game, they’d have to be considering where you are, as the city bleeds water into its marble halls and living rooms reminding the player that they walk among the ruins of a dream.
The game will also confront the player with a moral choice, not once, but several times throughout the experience, although many of the other choices that the player will make will focus more on how to approach certain tasks…such as whether they should sneak by their foes or go in with the wrench swinging. In addition to this, it also tackles many other subjects among the threads that it weaves in between Rapture’s former inhabitants as bits and pieces of the greater picture become more and more clear. You might get drawn into the story of unrequited love, or become repulsed by the sadism of one of Rapture’s scientists as he calmly recounts his experiments on the living. There’s plenty of that here.
And not everything is so obvious. Bioshock’s mature rating is well earned, but instead of handing much of its horror on a plate, it implies, insinuates, and suggests with its setting and what is left behind in each of those recordings and what you may see. Much of it is left to your imagination to fill in the blanks, such as a container marked “Temporary Waste Storage” that clearly isn’t being used for what you might normally think.
Survival Under Pressure
With the setting and the story told through it as strong as they are, the gameplay has its work cut out for it. As an FPS title, the basic controls are familiar to anyone that has had a chance to play a PC based shooter. It will also support a 360 gamepad, but I found that the mouse and keyboard combo worked very well in switching between my weapons and genetic powers. But in addition to the weapons and ammo types that you can use to defend yourself with, you’ve also got a chance to take a piece of the genetic superpie that tore Rapture apart.
ADAM changed the world of Rapture. Pure stem cells secreted from a particular sea slug when it was part of a host, it allowed anyone to literally change their genetic makeup. Soon, an industry was built around ADAM and the genetic modifications it created such as plasmids and gene tonics. Unfortunately, it ultimately destroyed their society as war broke out over who would control it, turning people into the Splicers that you will be fighting…former humans that had modified themselves just a little too far. But fortunately for you, it provides an edge that you can use.
Plasmids allow you to rewrite your DNA and give you a variety of powers such as being able to throw lightning into a pool of water to shock your foes or use telekinesis to catch grenades and toss them back. As you progress in the game, you’ll find more plasmids that you can use but you are limited as to how many you can equip at any one time. Gene tonics give you inherent abilities across four different categories, whether it is something physical like toughened skin for deflecting more damage or something that has to do with combat, such as improving the damage you can mete out with your handy wrench.
The only way to expand the number of slots that you can use is with ADAM which also acts as a kind of genetic currency. The number of plasmid powers, gene tonics, and even enhancements to your health or your store of EVE, the power needed to use your plasmid powers, will depend heavily on ADAM. And this is where the game throws you that moral curve I mentioned before and where some of the press about the game has focused on.
“You think that’s a child down there?”
Little, pallid girls with large, glowing yellow eyes holding huge needles wander Rapture, draining the blood from the corpses around them and drinking it to process ADAM. And protecting them from Rapture’s desperate citizens are the Big Daddys, huge tanks on two legs wearing dive suits whose whale-like moaning and heavy footfalls warn of their approach. Tackling these walking juggernauts will be something that you will have to learn how to do and will be among the hardest fights in the game. Despite their huge, lumbering appearance, they can move as quickly as lightning and hit with as much force as a sledgehammer packed with dynamite. As with most everything else in Rapture, the pathfinding used will keep them close, but you can lose them…for a few moments at least.
But you’ll need ADAM if you want to survive Rapture, and the only way to get it is from a Little Sister. After tackling the Big Daddy, what you do next will decide what kind of ending you will see. You’ll be given a choice to either harvest the Little Sister or save her. Harvesting her will give you plenty of ADAM and allow you to modify yourself even faster, but she won’t survive the process when you extract the parasite.
Despite what some in the press have cried foul about, the act is hidden behind a curtain of swirling green and black smoke before revealing the slug in hand…and no sign of the Little Sister as a chilling suggestion to her fate. Ken Levine and his team have left the viewer with only the barest of hints that something terrible has just happened in much the same way that film has always done. This isn’t new.
Michael Mann’s version of The Untouchables did as much to bring the point of Chicago’s Prohibition War home when a child is caught in the middle…a far more explicit and shocking scene than what was given players in Bioshock. Granted, the player actively participates in the fiction instead of passively accepting it as they would by reading a book or watching it on the silver screen, but it is ridiculous to call it a murder simulator just as it would be silly to call everyone that had gone on to see the Godfather trainees for organized crime.
Because the game, by its nature, allows the player to actively make a decision, Bioshock’s fiction makes the point that it is trying to get across with a more tangible impact. Not every player will see it this way as they harvest their way to the end for the points and the power. But the potential is there to allow players drawn in by the story to dig a little deeper into the world of Rapture and write at least some part of the story for themselves.
Those that go through the game to save the Little Sisters also have the promise of greater rewards to spur them on, including a different ending. After saving so many Little Sisters, you may receive a gift that may include a plasmid or tonic that you would not otherwise be able to get along with a few extra goodies that may come in handy. The game lets you know how many Little Sisters are left on a particular level and rescuing, or harvesting, them all will be one of the most important tasks you will need to do in the game. The choice is left in your hands.
Vending machines of all types will sell most everything you’ll need such as first aid kits, pep bars, and even ammunition, using the money that you’ll also be collecting during the game to fatten your wallet which does have a limit. You’ll even find a few stations where you can upgrade your weapons, although they’re only good for one use. With enough upgrades, your weapons will start looking like something of a cross between sci-fi and steampunk, with pipes, tanks, wires, and gears added in. Gene banks allow you to change the plasmids and tonics you’ve collected and U-Invent machines can create special ammo and even a tonic or two given the right ingredients. And Gatherer Gardens allow you to spend your ADAM on a few more genetic upgrades.
Most of these can even be hacked allowing you to give yourself a discount on the goods. Hacking in the game is a made up of a simple puzzle game where you’ll need to link pipe sections together to complete a circuit from one point to the next. Pipe sections are revealed by clicking on tiles to reveal them and you’re also running against the clock as fluid starts to trickle into the circuit. Later on, you’ll need to deal with working around broken pipes and alarm tiles and even smaller fields with fewer tiles to work with. Depending on the gene tonics you’ve got equipped, some of these can be a little easier to manage. If you fail a hack attempt, you’ll get a nasty shock or worse, flying security turrets are activated to attack.
Hacking will be something that will be very useful, not only in using it to save a few bucks, but in taking control of cameras, security turrets, and the flying robots that protect what is left of Rapture and in having them protect you instead. You can even hack healing stations, turning them into deadly traps for your foes when they try to bandage themselves up. Even your plasmids can be used to give you an advantage, such as stunning security turrets with electricity to hack them for protection. Or you can simply destroy them. Auto hacking tools can also be found, or made, to solve these puzzles with a click of the mouse.
As much fun as it was to hack my way through the game, it can get pretty repetitive later on. Towards the end, I found myself using more and more auto hacks just to get through these.
There’s plenty of action to be found in Rapture whether it’s fighting an army of Splicers or tackling another Big Daddy. After all, it is an FPS. Whether your fighting style happens to be with the weapons that you can carry, or in using plasmids, or even a mix of both, how you take the battle to the enemy is up to you with the number of possible tactics that you can try. There are even one or two “boss” encounters that will challenge you, and the environment itself lends plenty of advantages to whatever you decide to do whether it’s setting a pool of oil aflame or in using telekinesis to string electrified wires across doorways.
But as engrossing as the single player can be, it was still a relatively linear experience with a script that led you from beginning to end. Although you are free to tackle most of the challenges in the game and experiment with plasmids as you liked, you really couldn’t change too much in the story other than the ending itself. There are moments where Rapture can feel like a sandbox beneath the sea until you run out of things to do outside of the main story. That, and most everyone in Rapture simply want to kill you. Still, explorers can find a few things in out of the way places as the title allows you to wander around the areas of Rapture that you’ve already been to. Hidden recorders and even a plasmid or gene tonic or two can be found tucked away in the dark corners of the city.
Saves can be handled manually, or you can hit the quicksave button instead. The game does take some time to load the different areas, and saves can often be quick…if you are reloading from within the same area. But death isn’t something to worry about in Bioshock thanks to Vita Chambers. Whenever you die, you’re resuscitated at the nearest one with some health and enough EVE to give you something of a fighting chance when you step out. It helps keep you in the game and replaces the need to continually reload, but it does cheapen the threat of any danger that you might face with the worst part being that you might have to walk to where you met your demise or restock your arsenal. The game can also be a little too generous. By the time I finished it, my wallet was bulging with cash and I had enough spare parts to build enough ammunition to arm several third world countries. I was never really hurting for anything in the game, especially when it would spawn extra Splicers to keep you busy.
Splicers and Big Daddies will often return to places that you had just cleaned out, keeping things interesting since it’s easy to explain that they could have just wandered in from somewhere else. But while Rapture doesn’t use monster closets to bring them to you, it also tends to spawn them in from seemingly nowhere at times. One task seemed to generate Splicers that would attack you after you pushed a button, while another locale had Splicers cutting themselves through doorways that led to…closets. How they got in there is anyone’s guess.
But the final boss fight, the climax of the action, wasn’t much of a fight. Big Daddies put up a better, and much more harrowing battle than the last boss did. And while the ending cinematic that I got was satisfying, it was over before I knew it. No credit roll, no montage of images, no hint as to what might have happened to the rest of Rapture. That’s it, a dump to the main menu and thanks for playing. The story was complete, but I definitely wanted more out of the experience. The abrupt end after so long of a build up to it was something of a letdown.
There’s also no multiplayer which could have seen players pit their skills against each other as fellow Splicers, but the game is focused primarily on being a solo story experience which is just fine. Still, players hoping to squeeze more game out of Bioshock will see it as a missed opportunity to see some crazy combat using gene spliced superpowers.
Cogs and Wires
On the technical side of things, there were also a few oddball glitches especially with some of the Splicer physics when they lie dead on the ground. Arms, hands, legs, and feet eerily twitch as if the genetic spark that drove them to kill was trying its best to resurrect what’s left. And while the game looks great, there were a few instances where some of the textures appeared flat and low res against many of the more detailed ones. There’s also the occasional invisible wall preventing you from going too far from the beaten path, such as being unable to jump over certain banisters when you could elsewhere.
When you try and replay the recordings that you find from the journal menu, they often don’t until you exit out. If you’ve clicked on a slew of recordings from the journal they’ll stack up until you exit and will begin playing one after another. There’s no way that I could see to stop them, either, once they start talking. Sometimes it works as intended, inside the journal, but not often.
The Great Chain
Amusement park rides buckle you in for the experience, placing that bar across your knees and keeping you in the car as it takes you through a haunted mansion. Bioshock throws out the bar and forgets the car, letting you walk through the experience and take part in a great story as it unfolds. Players can expect around fifteen to twenty hours of action at the bottom of the ocean depending on what they do. But as Andrew Ryan will probably tell you, Rapture is what you will make of it.