PC | Xbox 360
Review By Steve Farrelly @ 02:24pm 28/08/07
One of the most significant things about BioShock – from the outset – is the inclusion of the 2K Australia logo at the absolute beginning of the game. Yep, this much talked about opus was put together in Canberra by Irrational Games (who're now known as 2K Australia). And believe me, that's something to be very proud of. BioShock could well be one of the most important games of this, or indeed any, generation. Beyond everything else it has to offer, BioShock is a peak example of a game that just keeps on giving; the consummate 'next-generation' offering. This is because BioShock is so perfectly balanced throughout, it's almost impossible to find any one element that doesn’t sit flawlessly poised with another.
Despite what you may have read or been told, this is not a sequel to System Shock 2. It could be described as that game's "spiritual successor" but that would be taking so much away from what BioShock has set out to do with this current generation of games (and with console shooters in general), it would be remiss. Instead it's far better to drop yourself into the world of Rapture and just take it all in as a stand alone journey. And thankfully the game gives you a literal helping hand with this concept at the very beginning of your adventure.
Your name is Jack, and according to your parents you’re "special" and were "born to do great things". Like so many other significant shooters – Jack is a faceless and hapless hero. Sitting on a plane looking at a photo of his parents and hanging onto a gift, we have very little information on just who our soon-to-be protagonist is save for his parents' comments. Suddenly everything blacks out and abruptly Jack finds himself desperately clutching for air from beneath the Atlantic Ocean, survival the only option. Propeller blades are cutting through the water and debris and luggage are passing you down on your way up, it's chaotic and desperate, and Jack's gargled attempts at holding his breath only add to the fervour of the situation. Upon surfacing and gulping at the precious, precious air, it becomes instantly apparent our hero's (your) plane has crashed – the water around you is littered with flaming debris, and off in the distance you can even see the plane’s tail sinking to the ocean's murky depths. Oddly enough, right next to this intense sight is a massive ominous tower reaching from the dark reaches of the Atlantic with no explanation as to why it's even there.
Once surfaced, you can immediately take control of Jack and move him about the ocean. There's not much you can do though, beyond ogling at the unbelievable water effects (arguably the best ever seen in a videogame). However, it's completely possible to stop him in front of the slowly sinking tail of your former aerial transport and watch it vanish into the ocean depths, after which your only other real course of action is to head over to the portentous tower and find its invitingly dark entranceway.
ShockolutionOnce inside things just get a little crazier. What is this place? Why is it breaching from the waters of the mid-Atlantic? And what does the banner "No Gods or Kings. Only Man" mean? Like your watery exit, there’s not much to do here but soak up the stunning visuals and descend the staircases below. Eventually you come across a Bathysphere (an underwater transport), and once inside you, yourself, begin your journey to the unknown depths of the Atlantic.
Irrational Games are no stranger to mixing things up in the FPS genre, their last outing (the aforementioned System Shock), took a similar idea of action, sci fi and horror and coalesced them together into a futuristic world aboard an experimental starship being overrun by aliens. You took control of a new military soldier and had to use your wits to survive.
Similarly to BioShock, System Shock 2 also incorporated character upgrades removing the game from the usual FPS formula and throwing in some RPG elements, to boot. The end result was a game that – at the time – was difficult to market, but today still remains one of the most beloved FPS outings ever. System Shock 2 was co-developed by Looking Glass Studios and was published by EA in 1999 – if you get the opportunity, pick it up and see where the evolution that resulted in BioShock began.
Answers come in the form of what becomes standard place for the game's incredibly well-paced and presented narrative. Your window to the ocean is replaced with a slide-reel and a voice-over from one Andrew Ryan. He talks of the "Man in Washington", "The Vatican" and "Communists" and places them as lifestyle hurdles – barriers to the limitless nature of man. "Are you not entitled to the sweat off your brow?" he asks, and prescribes his own answer to dealing with these governing impediments with Rapture.
Upon this revelation the slide-reel is pulled away and your window shows a stunning view of a single man's vision – a city under the sea where no creative mind from fields such as science, art and industry can be choked by "petty morality" - a sprawling metropolis that seems to embrace and embody the very idea of change. Yet despite this vision of majesty, not all is as it seems, and docking at the first Rapture Bathysphere Station reveals a horrifying taste of things to come as you literally watch a hapless victim gutted before your very eyes. A shortwave radio located in the Bathysphere brings across an Irish voice introducing himself as Atlas, the man who "aims to keep you alive".
Already BioShock has proven itself a game unlike any other, and we've only been with it for a few minutes. A walk about the Bathysphere Station reveals just how much work Irrational Games put into the title. Here is a game that uses the Unreal Engine on par with (or arguably better than) Epic Games. The art deco stylings of Rapture's innards are but just one small portion of a larger, more surprising picture. Irrational have managed to forge a game that feels like the period it is set in (1960), yet the very concept of walking through the halls of a city under the sea allows for all sorts of science fiction comparisons (most notably classics by the likes of Jules Verne and Orson Welles). However, there is also a ubiquitous sense of uneasiness riddled throughout Rapture, so much so it borders on horror. But not the b-grade type of horror we're so used to in videogames today – this is smart and thrilling, suspenseful and unsettling, and taking into account the experience is not at all passive, all the more chilling for being interactive.
Just why Rapture has descended into chaos is something I don't want to spoil for you – the way in which it is told though is just as refreshing as the story itself. Littered throughout the game-world you'll come across portable voice-recorders, each one carrying with it the thoughts and revelations of the citizens of Rapture (seemingly before they fell into lunacy). There are random recordings of everyday musings between unimportant people, but there are also major story arcs and disclosures often revealed at specific points in your journey, however, these never, ever interrupt the flow of gameplay. You're not once forced to watch a cut-scene – everything is in-game and on-the-fly, the way true videogame narrative should be.
But this new state of mind (that of Raptures now mad citizens you'll come to know as Splicers), while sad and unfortunate, has created the perfect fodder for you to have to work your way through. Don't be fooled into thinking the Splicers are the same as Zombies though. You may be able to kill them, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t smart; their goal is survival, as much as it is yours, and they'll do everything in their power to stay alive and take you down in the process. In this regard the game's AI is quite remarkable, splicers on fire will run to a nearby body of water and flop themselves in to douse the flames, equally if a splicer is hurt and near a health station, they'll even use it to heal themselves to continue the fight. Like I said, not in least bit like zombies, but every bit as scary.
While it's easy to categorise BioShock as a shooter, it's not even close to being as simple as a genre stamp would have you think. Yes everything is played out in the first-person, and yes you gain such shooter favourites as pistols, shotguns and grenade launchers (among much more), but the real power for Jack comes in the form of Plasmids and Gene Tonics. These additions to the formula serve as genetic upgrades that actually rewrite your own genetic code, giving you incredible powers at your very fingertips. There are a slew of plasmid and gene tonic upgrades to find throughout Rapture, and each one has more than a handful of uses within the game-world. How you use these upgrades within Rapture is entirely up to you, in fact it is wholly possible to play through the game never using them (though it would be damn hard), but it's this freedom of choice (both in the decision to use them as well as how to use them) that has made BioShock one of the most important games ever crafted.
BioShock Special EditionWith no limitations, the scientists of Rapture soon discovered a sea-creature that could attach itself to a human host allowing for genetic reconstruction throughout the body. This was able to occur as the sea-creature helped the body create new stem cells which healed the host meaning new genetic modifications could take affect without endangering them. This process is dubbed ADAM, and with it you can constantly upgrade your character 'splicing' new plasmids and gene tonics to your genetic code as your progress, however, obtaining ADAM is no small feat and comes at a serious moral choice.
2K Australia have released BioShock in a limited edition package that comes with a copy of the game and a behind-the-scenes DVD, both collected in a nifty embossed tin box with an equally limited edition Big Daddy figurine.
Unfortunately, the previously announced inclusion of a limited edition art-book did not make the Australian Special Edition, however, you can actually download this at the official BioShock website by clicking here (there’s also heaps of other cool stuff like desktop wallpapers and more). A Limited Edition EP is also available through the BioShock Special Edition and includes three of the original tracks from the game remixed by Moby and Oscar The Punk.
Beyond the splicers found within Rapture, you also come across Little Sisters and Big Daddies. Little Sisters move throughout Rapture, draining blood from the fallen splicers to recycle it as ADAM. Little Sisters all carry within them the sea-creature needed to create ADAM, and once you get a hold of these strange children, you can choose to either save them or harvest them; however, harvesting comes at the ultimate cost as the girls cannot survive the parasite extraction process. Saving the little sisters though means you won’t extract as much ADAM as you would if you harvested them, and so you need to make a moral choice between ultimate power, and ultimate saviour.
Getting the little sisters isn't easy though as they're guarded by hulking beasts in deep-sea diving suits called Big Daddies. There are a number of different types of big daddies but the number one thing you need to know about them is they're incredibly hard to kill. In fact, it's a feat to bring one of them down without yourself dying (you can be revived at Vita Chambers though), but if you want to max Jack out in the latest Ryan Industries has to offer with their Plasmid and Gene Tonic range has to offer, it must be done.
Plasmids you gain can include fire, electricity, telekinesis and more. Each one can be used to interact with the game-world also, so seeing a splicer - or a group of splicers - standing in a pool of water means you can shoot a bolt of electricity at the pool and electrocute them all. There are countless examples of marriages between the game-world and your accrued abilities throughout Rapture, and finding and exploiting them will help you when the game becomes harder and harder. As mentioned earlier, it's entirely possible to ignore all of the plasmid and gene tonic upgrades, but doing so will make things incredibly difficult (and probably pretty boring).
That said, however, you can also upgrade your weapons at a Power to the People Station, and at U-Invent Stations you can create alternate ammo for each of your weapons (they each have three alternate forms of fire) from various pickups found on dead bodies or strewn about the place (items such as glue, screws, rubber hose, etc). Anything in the game that can be upgraded is done at specific stations, while there are also various vending machines for everyday items such as Health and Eve (Eve replenishes your plasmid meter). There are even locked safes throughout the game-world that hold money and items (everything still comes at a price in Rapture, so you need money to buy items). You can choose to hack most of the machines and a successful hack means you won't pay as much money for items or use as many spare parts when inventing. It's an unbelievably robust system for staying on top of your offensive abilities, and equally offers another excuse for exploring everything the world of Rapture has to offer.
Pickups can be found by searching dead bodies, crates, lockboxes and more. You can also pull out your telekinesis plasmid and randomly point to out-of-reach places and more often than not you'll grab a hidden pickup. These usually consist of various types of ammo, bandages and food (used to slightly heal you), health kits, eve and more. This also adds to the exploration of the game, which, for the purpose of following only the narrative, could be considered linear, however, Irrational have offered just enough non-linear level design that taking the time out to explore not only means you'll find hidden items and treasures, but also obscure recorders and the like for just that much more of the game's intricate story.
This "intricate" story, ultimately, becomes the driving force behind moving through the game, which given how much there is to do within Rapture outside of the narrative, is an unbelievable feat. It's also incredibly difficult not to spoil anything for you as there is just so much to talk about when it comes to the game's plot, but alas, armed with the gameplay knowledge you've accrued here, that is the last (and most important) frontier left to explore. BioShock, for the sum of its parts, is easily the game of the year thus far and there seems to be very little - in my opinion - on the horizon as poignant as this to derail it from that perch. Beyond 2007, I can't foresee a gameplay experience as rich, balanced and robust as this. As I said at the beginning of this review, BioShock really is the game "that keeps on giving" thanks largely to the fully realised game-world and the incredible marriage between interacting with it, its denizens and your accrued weapons and abilities, but beyond all of this, the experience is so much more worth it for the incredible narrative, story and pacing. An absolutely masterful piece of game design and a title that further proves games are fast becoming art and not just a pastime for kids or so called nerds or geeks.