An Artful Spiritual Successor To System Shock 2
The moment that the game's undersea city, Rapture is revealed to an intense orchestral flourish, shining like a retro-styled future dream in the vibrant depths, the player is drawn into an experience. That is indeed what Bioshock is - an experience. The game has an atmosphere of terrific substance, a triumph of design.
Graphically, there is no doubt that the technology is incredible. Most especially, lighting and water effects will cause jaws to drop in awe. Early in the game, I witnessed a cascade of water and could not believe the realistic look of it. And in a game set under the waves, this is used to wonderful effect.
Yet graphics are really only a means to express the visual experience. As we found with Oblivion, no matter how pretty a game is, a poorly designed world becomes tedious and boring. Bioshock succeeds in avoiding such problems. Every location is distinct and meaningful. It is not simply a matter of individual levels, but individual districts and rooms which have a sense of...well.. place. And, further, they have a sense of the people who had inhabited them. Everywhere, the player who looks will find tiny stories being told of someone who was there before them. Many of these are quite chilling. All of them are seamlessly expressed within the game's world.
Sound effects are a big part of any game, but in the survival horror genre they serve the essential purposes of causing tension and indicating the presence of nearby enemies. Bioshock's sound is of a quality beyond reproach. Although voice tends to be well done, it is in the combination of lush environmental effects with haunting 30's and 40's style music coming from sources in the world itself that the player is truly drawn into the game.
Combat is creative and enjoyable. There are a great many combat encounters, yet one can avoid them entirely or choose to use indirect means to take down their foes.
One highly touted aspect of the game is the use of the environment in fighting. For instance, hacking a health machine will cause enemies to be poisoned when they try to use it. New dimensions certainly open up in Bioshock for those with the creativity and presence of mind to use them.
Much like its spiritual predecessor, System Shock 2, Bioshock's intense atmosphere and randomly spawning enemies succeeds in creating that essential "never really safe" feeling I love in these games. This, combined with the descent into a world of madness and terror in Rapture, creates an unforgettable experience.
While Bioshock is the spiritual successor to the game which I consider to be one of the greatest of all time - System Shock 2 - it does not quite live up to the older product. Certainly, technology has been upgraded. And there is no doubt that the AI and the use of environment are substantially improved. However, beyond this, I find that Bioshock consistently falls short of System Shock 2.
While I do praise the sound and also the quality of the voice acting, the range of script and casting is far too limited. It seems as if I am constantly encountering the same people who are saying the same things over and over. Yes, in System Shock 2, there were similar limitations. But it does not bother me there, perhaps because of the "uncanny valley" effect. In other words, I do not have an issue with worm zombies moaning out repetitious lines because they are so inhuman. When a very human seeming splicer rants the same lines as five other splicers in the last half hour, it is so close to human that it becomes very noticeable to me.
The AI is better than in System Shock 2, but it is still pretty poor compared to what is available. In a world after F.E.A.R.'s incredible tactical combat, the bar has been raised so that it is no longer acceptable for AI to charge at me with guns. I want them to try to flank, to be aware of what weapon I am using and when I am reloading it. Certainly, I would like a bit better than what Bioshock provided.
System Shock 2 was a PC only release, while Bioshock was developed for multiple platforms at the same time. Many people suggest that this caused Bioshock to be "dumbed down" for the more casual console market. Whether this was the reasoning or not, there is little doubt that this is a far easier game and one with much less complexity.
First, the roleplaying game aspect has pretty much disappeared here. In System Shock 2, the player had to assign points to upgrade both their attributes and their skills. You were not automatically able to hack any computer, use any gun, and project psionic blasts. In order to do any of that, the player had to make choices. So you could never be a super-soldier, master hacker, and psionic wizard at the same time. That made for true gameplay choices. Meanwhile, all skill and stat points are now gone from Bioshock. Now your character automatically is capable of any hacking, plasmid usage, or weapon usage with perfect skill.
One of the key aspects of survival horror is the need to survive. These are taken separately from other action games because they impose difficult restrictions which force a careful, thoughtful style of play amidst a chaotic, dangerous environment. Generally, this is achieved through a combination of limited health and limited resources.
System Shock 2 truly put the survival in survival horror. On the first play-through, most will find the game's difficulty to be incredible. You begin to hoard every resource you can, avoid combat when possible, and rejoice at finding even one more bullet. Every action you take is a calculated risk of your chances to survive. By contrast, I found that even on Hard, I was overflowing with resources by mid-game in Bioshock. There was never any desire to avoid combat except in the very beginning. I had so much stuff that I was often unable to pick up more of it. My ammunition and money was constantly full. All of this served to decrease my sense of truly surviving.
Much was made before release about the supposed choices made in Bioshock. However, in reality, there was only one line of choices being made - whether to harvest the "Adam" (money to spend on genetic powers) fully from the zombie little girls who ran about gathering it, thus killing them, or whether to save them for a much lesser amount of Adam. Not only was this rather black and white question the only moral issue to solve, but if you chose the "good" path then you would receive repeated large gifts for doing so - thus making the Adam difference between the two paths very little. I would have been happier if being the good guy meant you had to work harder.
Combat could be a bit unsatisfying at times in Bioshock. The problem was balance. Near the end of the game, enemies became superpeople who could laugh off your plasmid abilities. Being engulfed in flames seemed to have little effect on them, for instance. Yet some weapons proved to be so overpowered that it felt like cheating to use them. So the creativity of the environmental style of combat ended up being lost in the shuffle.
The Bottom Line
I would recommend Bioshock for its atmosphere alone, but there is a lot more to love about it. There is no doubt that this game is a 5 star title. However, those expecting a real return to the brilliance of System Shock 2 should be aware that it is not to be found here - only a shadow of that glory.