Reviewed: August 19, 2007
Released: August 21, 2007
If you would have been anywhere near me or my Xbox 360 this past week you would have probably heard those two words a lot. Every time I ventured into a new breathtaking scene, level, or even a room, every time some new watery special effect liquefied my screen in all its 1080p glory, every time I heard the thump and groans of a Big Daddy or the haunting, yet innocent voice of a Little Sister, every time some new plot revelation sent my head reeling, every time I inadvertently unlocked a secret achievement, hell, pretty much every time I turned on my 360 with this disc in the drive you’d be hearing those two words.
After what seems like an eternity of teasers, trailers, demos, and impatient waiting, 2K Games has finally released BioShock, and no matter how much you think you are prepared for this game…you aren’t. I just finished the game last night (21h:13m) and I can say without reservation this is easily the best gaming experience I have had in my 25 years of gaming.
So just what makes BioShock so great? Perhaps it is the perfect blend of storytelling, atmosphere, and a collage of genres that are woven together with such intricacy that a new genre has been born. As you experience BioShock for yourself there will be obvious moments where you will recall other games that have lent their ideas to this production. F.E.A.R. and The Suffering both come to mind just from the sheer element of terror and psychological foreboding this game instills, not only in the person playing the game but anyone else watching the game unfold.
But perhaps the single greatest influence I could glean from this game would be the 2000 smash hit, Deus Ex, and if you had to pick a game to pattern your design from you could do a whole lot worse. Not since Deus Ex have I felt and experienced the freedom of choice BioShock offers. Even though you are relatively confined to a scripted story and somewhat linear path through a breathtaking underwater universe, you still have plenty of options when it comes to the actual gameplay.
Without giving away any specifics or info that isn’t already readily available in trailers and the demo, you play Jack, an average guy on an overseas flight when suddenly, the plane crashes. You blackout and regain consciousness underwater, quickly swimming to the surface amidst fiery wreckage and burning fuel slicks. You navigate the maze of flames to a mysterious and very small island with a lighthouse. Inside is a bathysphere (mini-sub) that takes you to the bottom of the ocean…to Rapture.
Rapture is beyond description, at least with mere words. Imagine a major metropolitan city like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco as it might have appeared in the 1940’s then put it at the bottom of the Ocean. Buildings of various sizes, even skyscrapers all combine to form a typical city, with buildings being connected by transparent tubes. There is even a mass transit system with trolleys and a bathysphere station that takes you between major parts of the city.
Everything has a very art deco theme to it, with lots of classic architecture, glowing neon, brass fixtures, stained glass, and ornate furnishings. There is also a distinctly odd mix of Jules Verne-like mechanics and technology at work in Rapture. You’ll see strange machines that pump water and giant Tesla towers, and thermal generators sitting atop undersea volcanoes. It all looks like it would actually work if somebody could build it, and this level of convincing realism is what makes you never doubt for an instant that you are actually in some forgotten city.
Once you arrive in Rapture it doesn’t take long (about 20 seconds) to realize something is wrong. It’s probably that bloody dead guy who just got plastered on your porthole. Once you acquire the portable radio you’ll be in almost constant contact with Atlas who will guide you through the city in an attempt to save his family. But that is only the tip of the cinematic iceberg.
Along the way you’ll learn about Andrew Ryan, the sinister mastermind who built Rapture, and the one responsible for the evil genetic experiments conducting on the population that has turned their 1959 New Year’s Eve party into a bloodbath leaving only a handful of survivors. Everyone else has been turned into Splicers, mindless zombie-like creatures that come in a variety of flavors. You’ll also meet up with Little Sisters, young little girls who wander the ghost town of Rapture siphoning the blood from the dead in order to collect Adam. While quite fragile on their own, these Little Sisters each come with their own personal Big Daddy bodyguard. No description is necessary – you’ll know one when you see it…or rather hear it.
Adam is a substance that is used to modify human DNA bestowing upon them great powers you’ll come to know as Plasmids. For the purpose of the review, we’ll call it “magic” since you’ll be flinging fireballs, lightning blots, and other similar attacks like ice and telekinesis, while your Eve (mana) bar slowly depletes. The further you progress in the game the more Plasmids you’ll uncover as well as unlocking more powerful versions of the ones you already possess.
Now that we have established the story, setting, and a few of the ground rules let’s talk about the gameplay. BioShock appears to be a standard FPS with a heavy dose of RPG and adventure. Call it Oblivion with boundaries, only with a lot more imagination and a total sense of wonder.
Jack has numerous weapons at his disposal, eventually. You’ll start off with a pistol then graduate to shotgun, machine gun, rocket launcher, and even a chemical weapons dispenser that doubles as a lightning gun and flamethrower. All of these weapons can be upgraded twice, complete with realistic visual enhancements and performance boosts. Ammo is plentiful, found on dead bodies as well as vending machines scattered about the complex.
Speaking of vending machines, plan on doing a lot of shopping during your stay in Rapture. Circus of Values has just about anything an adventurer might need, and then you have machines specifically for ammo, and a Gene Bank to swap Plasmids and tonics plus the all-important Gatherer’s Garden where you can purchase new Plasmids and expand your slots.
Jack starts off with only a few available slots for Plasmids and tonics. Tonics are passive boosts to your abilities and are divided into Physical, Combat, and Mechanical. When you equip these tonics you can become an expert hacker, stealthy wrench slayer, or get an extra boost of health from eating junk food. There are more than 50 tonics and only a few slots for each category. In the beginning and middle of the game you’ll have to be very selective on which tonics you choose, as these will dictate how you play the game.
From personal experience, I can’t recommend highly enough the value of hacking. Even at the end of the game I had all but one of my slots used for hacking boosts. You see, there are numerous things to hack in Rapture – another reason this game had me reminiscing about my Deus Ex days. You can hack vending machines, which not only lowers your cost on items but also opens up new items otherwise inaccessible. You can hack locks, which is handy if you can’t find the combination, and you’ll have to hack safes if you want the valuable contents inside. In fact, safes represent some of the hardest hacks in the game.
But the best hacks are when you can turn Rapture’s own security systems into your own person agents of destruction. Hacking a turret will cause it to fire on anyone but you. Hacking a camera will cause it to summon multiple flying patrol bots that will unleash a flurry of lead on anybody but you. And you can even hack those flying bots and have them follow you around as your own personal air cover…at least until they get destroyed. My favorite hack is the medical station, which not only lowers your cost per use but will damage any hostile who attempts to use it.
Hacking is represented by a mini-game that you’ve probably seen in some similar fashion in any of a hundred of those puzzle or brain games. You have a large grid of squares with a starting point and an ending point and a pipe needs to connect those two points to complete the hack. Depending on the difficulty of the hack you will have numerous overload and security nodes (squares in the grid) to avoid as you swap around pieces of pipe to direct the flow of green liquid. If the liquid hits an overload or dead end in the pipe you take damage and if it hits a security alarm those flying patrol bots are summoned. You can retry the hack as often as you like. Tonics will help make a lot of the tougher hacks feasible, and on those impossible hacks you might want to spring for an Instant Hacking Tool. Each hack is ranked with a difficulty meter than arcs from green to red so you know what you are in for before you start the hack.
Another clever gameplay element is the Invention process. As you wander around the city you will start to accumulate a large collection of seemingly random junk. But what might look like 3 batteries, two rubber hoses, and a can of kerosene can be converted into a heat-seeking RPG round at any of the U-Invent stations located around Rapture. And like everything else, you can hack these machines too and in doing so, will use less parts to create the same items. Inventing is a great way to build your own ammo, especially the expensive stuff like grenades and napalm.
BioShock is about 40% exploration and adventure and 60% combat mixed with a bit of strategy. Early on, taking down a Big Daddy is more about knowing where to use level architecture to your advantage or perhaps using the Enrage Plasmid to have Splicers run interference for you. Once you have the rocket launcher and a nice collection of explosives, Big Daddies are just big distractions. Expect some really smart AI as well. Light an enemy on fire and he will seek out the nearest body of water to dive into, and damaged enemies will make use of any nearby health stations.
As you explore Rapture you will uncover all sorts of items and information. Research makes up a huge part of the gameplay in BioShock, at least if you choose to do it. Early on you will find a camera, which you will need to keep stocked with film. You equip this camera like any weapon and can even zoom in. Your goal is to take numerous pictures of all the enemies in Rapture, Splicers, Bots, Big Daddy, Little Sister, etc. You’ll be graded on each picture with bonuses for action and composition and penalties for shooting the same subject twice. As you take more and more pictures your research bar will fill up, and at certain points you will get combat bonuses specific to that enemy.
I really enjoyed the photography element in BioShock. It gave the game a claustrophobic “through the lens” Fatal Frame flavor and created a sense of daring as you tried to sneak up and get that perfect close-up of a nitro-throwing Splicer before you quickly switched to a machine gun or shotgun to blow him away. I even caught myself trying to lure multiple enemies into the same frame to get composite bonuses. I only wish the game offered a way to save these images to my hard drive for later viewing.
Rapture is a huge city and at any given time you may have multiple quests in your log. Navigating the city is made easy with a handy directional arrow that always points toward your next goal, but if you find this too remedial you can toggle it off in the options. When you do have multiple goals you can pick one and make it active to switch the arrow so it points toward that goal.
You’ll want to thoroughly explore every location and item in Rapture. Almost everything in the game can be opened or searched and contains something of value, either hard cash, ammo, or a component to an invention. Health and Eve hypos are readily available for most of the game and later on you’ll have more than enough money to purchase what you can’t find. There are also 122 audio diaries (tape recorders) scattered about Rapture. Some are obvious and others are extremely well hidden. While these mostly contain background information on the city and the key characters, there are a few valuable tips and even a few combinations to some locks.
If all of what I have been trying to describe sounds familiar you’re right…it is, but I guarantee you have never seen all of these familiar gameplay elements combined in such a wholly unique and original setting. There is such a sense of awe and splendor the first time you arrive in Rapture, and that quickly turns into something most unsettling and downright creepy. There were several “Holy Shit” moments when I literally jumped off the couch. The game generates a continuous state of dread then punctuates it with moments of surprise and terror.
There is also an entire level of social, political, and even religious commentary going on throughout the game. Andrew Ryan is a professed atheist, yet his world is full of religious terms such as Rapture, Adam, and Eve. You’ll see crates of bibles being treated as contraband and bible salesmen strung up in bloody crucifixion poses with the word “Smuggler” scrawled in blood. And delirious Splicers will be roaming around singing the chorus to “Jesus Loves Me”.
I’ve already commented on the glorious architecture and authentic art deco themes used throughout the game to create a vintage look to what could only be considered a city of the future, even if it was built in the 40’s. Despite the improbability of actually constructing an entire city under the sea, the designers have created a city that is totally believable. Thick glass walls drip with condensation and heavy steel doors server as flood control for damaged portions of the city.
When you don’t have a direct view of the watery deep you’ll be quite convinced you are actually in a casino, theater, shopping mall, museum, or any of the other dozens of signature locations throughout Rapture. While we’re not given an exact timeframe for how long the city has been in ruin, the designers do a fantastic job of creating a very unsettling look to the environments. Just imagine what your city would look like if everybody started killing each other.
Technically, BioShock is off the charts – a new benchmark for the Xbox 360 with lighting, textures, and especially water effects that will send shivers down your spine. Just passing through any falling water will cause your screen (vision) to distort with realistic ripples, and the use of scripted lighting is worthy of a horror movie. There were at least two scenes that come to mind where I was walking down a very dark passage and up ahead was a lit room with the silhouette of someone doing something unspeakably evil to somebody else, but you only see the animated shadows. Your imagination takes care of the details.
Character models are excellent even if there are only a few enemy types. I usually set them on fire or electrocute them before I get close enough to study the details. The Splicers that crawl on the ceiling are particularly unsettling. Little Sisters generate feelings of sympathy while those glowing eyes creep you out at the very same time, and the lumbering Big Daddies create a formidable presence that will having you taking the long way around just so you don’t accidentally trigger their defense mode.
I also have to mention the humorous info movies for the various Plasmids. These are presented as those vintage sepia-tone filmstrips we used to watch in school, complete with amusing narration and classic still-shot animation.
The audio package ranks right up there with gameplay and visuals. The surround mix is outstanding and there is a continuous background presence of water in some fashion, whether it be a trickle, a drip, or just an eerie watery reverb. It almost becomes a subconscious part of the sound mix that you don’t even realize until you don’t hear it.
All of the weapons make great sounds and the Plasmids create their own sense of wonder when you light up an enemy with Incinerator 3 or zap them with Electro Bolt 2. Splicers all scream appropriately while dying but they also have some interesting scripted lines if you can catch them unaware. They are all insane to some extent so expect a lot of babbling and even some cursing. The creepiest lines come from the Little Sisters who consider their victims “angels” and talk to Big Daddy about being sleepy and going to bed and cry out when they get a “scabby on the knee”.
The soundtrack is worthy of a feature film, and also available on CD. It perfectly sets the mood and creates just the right sense of awe, mystery, wonder, suspense, and terror and all the right times. And if you are old enough you can expect some golden oldies on the jukeboxes including a classic cover of “How Much is That Doggy in the Window”.
The voice acting is flawless. Andrew Ryan, Atlas, Tenenbaum, and the rest of the diverse cast, most of which is heard on audio diaries, deliver quality lines with total commitment to the story and theme of the game. There is so much going on with so many plot threads, and it becomes quite easy to get caught up in all of the intrigue.
As previously mentioned, this game took me just over 21 hours to complete on the default skill setting. I didn’t set out to get every last achievement or uncover every hidden audio diary. I simply immersed myself in the BioShock experience and played the game as if I was Jack. This is a game that demands to be savored, and I feel really sorry for those who rush through the story in 12-15 hours then complain about how short the game is.
BioShock is one of those rare games that allows you to save anywhere and anytime you like. This gives you great freedom to try things you otherwise might not. And even when you do slip up and die, you are instantly returned to the last Vita-Chamber you passed, and everything you had done up to your death remains. Admittedly, you could use this forgiving system to cheat death repeatedly and get past some of the harder areas in the game.
I’m also puzzled about all the negative talk about the lack of multiplayer. Just because the Internet is out there…just because the Xbox can play games online doesn’t mean every game has to support it. This is an adventure game and an immersive work of interactive fiction and multiplayer has no place in BioShock. Kudos to the designers for not even attempting to tack something on and shame on anybody who complains about it.
There are plenty of reasons to dive back into Rapture after your first pass. There are two completely unique endings, and after experiencing the “happy” ending I’m curious to see what happens when I replay the game and go on a Little Sister killing spree. There are also a few photo research subjects I missed, and I fell a few inventions short of the 100 required to unlock an achievement. There is also 40 points waiting for me if I play on the harder skill setting.
So here we are at the end of a 3,000-word review for a game that words really can’t describe. BioShock is quite simply the adventure-RPG of the year, perhaps of all-time. It’s going to be quite some time before anybody can top this game.
With stunning visuals, immersive sound, and an epic story, BioShock hearkens back to a time of fantasy and wonder, blending elements of Jules Verne and John Carpenter into a cinematic masterpiece of sci-fi horror that you won’t want to miss. I can’t think of any game more deserving of a perfect ten than BioShock.