Bioshock has to be one of the most hyped games to come out recently for any system (not counting Halo 3’s over-the-top campaign). Microsoft and Take Two want us all to think it’s a badass shooter, and 2K and Ken Levine want us to think that it’s the spiritual successor to System Shock 2, and that it is going to change gaming (or at least show how gaming should change). These are pretty amazing claims, but this game is also receiving scores in the neighborhood of 100 from just about everybody out there. In the End, Bioshock falls well short of the hype, but is still a very impressive game.
Bioshock takes place in a sprawling underwater city named Rapture, sometime in the 1930s. Andrew Ryan, the creator of Rapture, built and ran the city following a cutthroat economic and social rulebook. Essentially, Rapture is a haven for the brilliant minds among us, who cannot bear the world as it unfolded around them. So, they built a sanctuary where they could pursue science and questionable moral and societal paths completely unchecked. Soon, the city and the lives of its inhabitants come to revolve around a substance called ADAM, a gene altering miracle that can make people into demigods, splicing various new abilities into their bodies.
Of course, many different things go terribly wrong, and all of the inhabitants eventually turn into genetically altered nut jobs, capering and crooning their way through one bloodbath after another. Enter your character, a nameless man whose plain crashes into the ocean miles above Rapture. From there, you’ll take a bathysphere (tiny submarine) down to Rapture proper.
Our hero progresses through the world of Rapture killing, collecting and splicing, turning himself into something less than human. At the same time, he gains various powers, which allow him to cope with the raging psychopaths he will encounter. The player is guided by ghostly visions (fueled by your own foolhardy genetic modifications) and audio diaries, which introduce us to a host of characters. Luckily, every character is represented well in the voice-acting department, excepting some over the top accents which fit in with the game’s thick atmosphere.
The core gameplay is shooter-based, as promised by Take Two, but just as important as weapons are your genetic powers, or plasmids. You’ll find plasmids that range from lightning bolts to scent glands (for fooling or distracting the enemy) to portable cyclones. They are all inventive, and all of them have an appreciable effect on Rapture or its denizens. There are other brands of plasmids, most of which will buff the character’s health, hacking ability or other random attribute, but to list them all would spoil the surprise. Sadly, the actual level of customization to be had here is minimal at best. You’re really just choosing different ways of killing people, nothing more.
These powers are collected through vials of ADAM, which one acquires through Little Sisters. These small children (along with their hulking guardians, the Big Daddies) are the center of the moral quandary Kin Levine claims will change the way you game. Whenever you defeat a Big Daddy (which is a hell of a lot of fun, any conflict involving a Big Daddy is literally earthshaking), you can choose to harvest Little Sisters for a large amount of ADAM, or save them, receiving a small chunk of ADAM, but with the promise of long-term benefits.
This is the situation that is supposed to stop gamers in their tracks and make them think, and to a degree, it works. The Little Sisters are creepy and arresting (and are lacking the clichés that many Scary Little Girls come with in movies and games), as they wander from body to body, stabbing each corpse in search of some trace ADAM. The Big Daddies are equally well drawn, and after Little Sisters are killed or saved, the Big Daddies will bang on portals (from which the Sisters emerge) and moan forlornly. Even more impressive, when one saves a Little Sister, the swell of music and her reaction to your kindness are strangely pleasing, you actually feel good about what you did.
Sadly, Harvesting Little Sisters has little emotional impact (due to a less than gripping “harvesting” cinematic that quickly darkens the screen, saving you from confronting your own actions), and your impact on the world itself is negligible, emotionally. Later in the game the developers up the ante a bit by showing you the impact of your actions, but they never manage to retain that one moment of pleasure one feels at helping an innocent. As a result, there is no great moral quandary; the results of your actions are two different ending videos, one of which feels silly and hackneyed. In the end, like so many other games, “moral ambiguity” and “choices” end up in two endings, one good, one bad.
So, if the main selling point of Bioshock has been completely exaggerated, can it still be called a great game? Bioshock is incredibly well made, despite its severe shortcomings. The leaking, dripping, amazingly creepy halls of Rapture scared me to death the first time through. When all the lights go out and weird voices start breathing heavily in your ear, and something runs past you with Gollum-like feet, you won’t be knocking the game design. Aside from creating an amazing sense of foreboding and tension (completely different from F.E.A.R.’s jumpy scares), the designers managed to imagine a beautiful, crumbling, Art-Deco inspired underwater city, and bring it to life with amazing detail and fidelity. The levels feel connected in a way that is hard to describe: it’s the kind of unifying art design that I haven’t seen in many other games, except maybe Half Life 2 or Shadow of the Colossus.
Speaking of which, Bioshock’s story is pretty good, and while it is basically an undersea version of System Shock 2, it’s not necessarily the story itself that matters, but the way it’s told. I actually dislike the whole “story told through diaries” method of storytelling, but in Bioshock, the narrative is literally at higher level from your average game. It’s that sense of unity and craft that makes the story stand out, just as with the art. Every audio diary is interesting, or scary, or original, and they make you believe in and relate to these characters in ways that games with full cutscenes often miss entirely. Creeping through an abandoned surgery ward and listening to the head of surgery mutilate a subject because he wanted to make her more unique and special is something that really has to be experienced to be believed (especially when you know that in a minute you will encounter that very same head of surgery).
Ultimately, the story can’t keep up with the art design, and about two thirds of the way through the game lost its intense, urgent feel, and turned into a silly revenge quest. As a result, I started caring less and less about enjoying the design, or audio tapes, or little art details, and more and more about finishing the game. This made me so sad, because the game was really engrossing until that point. The fact that the game’s final “boss” was boring and slightly ridiculous (especially when compared to the bosses one meets throughout the game) only made me less satisfied with my purchase.
In the end, Bioshock is a great experience, despite its huge flaws. It gave me new faith in the ability of games to tell a cohesive, entertaining narrative, in a credible and original way. Just as importantly, it proved that some developers can still use violence and dark themes in ways that aren’t infantile or amazingly demeaning to the player’s intelligence. This game was mature, intelligent, engrossing, and the game world was its own kind of brilliant narrative force. Despite Bioshock’s glaring faults and over-hyped reputation, I would still recommend it to all gamers, after the price has dropped a bit, that is.