Written by  :  Matt Neuteboom (989)
Written on  :  Jun 26, 2008
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  4.86 Stars4.86 Stars4.86 Stars4.86 Stars4.86 Stars

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It's not System Shock 3, but damn is this game still amazing

The Good

“System Shock 3” is all we heard a couple of months ago while all the critics were still wanking off to their favorite videos of Bioshock’s Big Daddies beating the snot out of every living thing. Reviewers seemed to be handing out more 10’s to this game than a desperately lonely man at a strip joint. Five-dollar words like innovation, unique, and unpredictable were repeatedly burned into our corneas to the point where we now can’t control our urge to shout them out every time another “immersive FPS” hits the market.

Upon starting up the game, I instinctively sided with the cynics, having been put through my fair share of let downs and disappointments with the FPS genre. Upon first starting the game I felt no reason to start drooling over it. It appeared to be another FPS game attempting to mask a thin plotline with a deep and thought-provoking setting. Yet as I went on, I realized how truly epic both the plot and gameplay were, until I was literally struggling to pick out something to find wrong with the game. Eventually I was faced with the reality of the situation: this game, shockingly, was exceeding my expectations.

Bioshock’s trump card, I believe, is its storyline. At the beginning of the game, you somehow manage to survive a plane crash in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Upon rising to the surface of the water, you see an eery lighthouse just sitting there, beckoning you to go in. Ignoring the screams of your fellow passengers, you go inside and take a jolly little ride on the bathysphere there to the train-wreck of a city that is Rapture. Rapture was a city built at the bottom of the ocean by Andrew Ryan for the purpose of avoiding government, socialist, and religious regulations, which he felt were hindering mankind’s greatness. However, the city is in ruins, torn apart from the inside by rioting. Someone or something has turned the citizens of Rapture against themselves.

Bioshock has an absolutely incredible sense of immersion. If you enjoy having your sense of belief suspended, prepare to have Bioshock steal it and launch it into orbit, never to return. Everything about the Bioshock universe is brilliant, from the atmosphere to the story, to the sheer depth and intuitiveness of the new scenario it presents to players.

You can tell Bioshock was built around the story because everything the designers to is intended to make it feel like a story. First of all, the very presentation of Rapture is breath-taking. From the first seconds of the game as you look up at the mysterious lighthouse, you can already sense something is amiss. The developers build on this, and throughout the game it only gets more atmospheric. The leaking walls serve to display both the atrophying architecture as well as the decaying splendor of this supposed utopia. The developers also use almost theatrical techniques to shock and surprise you, to the point that at some points in the game you can only stand in awe.

This only develops as you slowly learn the story of Rapture. In this case, Bioshock takes from both the Half-Life series with its “no cut-scenes” approach and Doom 3with its “audio log” approach, relying more heavily on the latter for exposition while the former for more present-action plot development. The audio log system works terrifically to develop the story of Rapture because most of the audio logs aren’t in order, allowing you to piece together to story as you progress through the game.

As well, most of the audio logs are done by a key set of 6 or 7 characters. This gives you the impression that even though they are not by your side, these characters are still part of the action and still affecting everything you do. By listening to these audio logs you get an amazing idea of the personalities of these people and how they reacted as Rapture descended into chaos. The fact that they mention other characters from other audio logs only serves to reinforce this notion.

I originally expected Bioshock to take on a sci-fi suspense angle, but I was shocked to see that in reality in leans far into horror. And when I say horror, I do not just mean the “monsters jump out of closets” type like we saw in Doom 3. I mean deeply fucked-up psychological horror. The game takes on a twilight-zone kind of feel, showing how the effects of isolation and removal from society drove the citizens of Rapture power-hungry and mad. This is accented by the mounting feeling of being trapped forever in the watery coffin that is Rapture.

The combat system is largely the same as any other FPS game out there. The game, in addition to giving you various weapons, gives you plasmids. These stem-cell like formulas alter your genetic material granting you access to God-like powers such as shooting lightning out of your hand, or shooting fire out of your hand, or shooting ice out of your hand, and, well, you get my point now. It really doesn’t get past these few and a couple of others. These are more useful for interacting with the environment than anything, as electric can temporarily short circuit turrets and cameras, fire will melt blocking ice and set oil on fire, etc.

However, you will largely be killing your foes with a rather generic set of guns ranging from a 30’s era machine gun to a pump shotgun. The plasmids help to vary things up a bit, but I found myself using them when I simply had run out of bullets for the rest of my guns. Occasionally large gunfights will get pretty exciting, but this is usually when Big Daddy’s or gun turrets get involved as well and also because gun shots are VERY LOUD for this very purpose.

Where combat truly shines is, yes, the Big Daddy fights. This is truly where you get to exercise your creative freedom in taking down this gargantuan beast largely because there are so many ways to do it. You can take him down with enough machine gun bullets and persistence, but it is much easier to use the environment against him. Lure him into some oil, electrocute him, lead him into a nest of enemies, hack a turret and use it against him, have him run over some trap wire, get him to ram into some barrels, lead him over your trip mines. Any combination of these provides for a brilliant fight, and what makes it better is that it is completely improvised, giving you a warm feeling of satisfaction knowing that the game wasn’t holding your hand through it. It’s this feeling that makes fighting the Big Daddies worth it, as well as the Adam which allows you to buy plasmids, health, and other upgrades.

The game is obviously pretty, though this is mostly due to the atmosphere and style rather than the graphics. If you sat there and stared at Bioshock and appreciated like a fine painting, you would in fact see the tremendous amount of detail in almost every part of Bioshock’s environment. However, let’s face it; we aren’t going to be looking at some pretty cabinets when we’ve got turrets shoving bullets in our back and balls of fire raining down upon us. Even so, most games these days are just as pretty so I really don’t known what to set as the standard anymore. Like I said, it’s pretty because of the atmosphere. When you stand in a quiet desolate dentist’s office in Rapture and you can’t hear anything but the streams of water leaking from the ceiling, that’s when you truly see the beauty in Bioshock. However, the game, like every other FPS out there, is still played mostly with the lights off, offering you less chances than you may think to sample the beauty of the game.

The Bad

The biggest let down was easily the false sense of choice and freedom the game gave me as I was starting it. I remember all of the trailers spouting out that you had all this freedom and how unpredictable the game would be depending upon your own choices. Well, being the cold, cynical man I am I immediately realized what a load of horse crap this all was. What took me by surprise, however, was to how far they actually embellished the truth. The game gives you actually no choice whatsoever, which might upset a few people, who, I don’t know, maybe were hoping for something actually promised a billion times by every Bioshock trailer out there.

The big thing is that when you kill a Big Daddy, you get to do naughty things with little girls, and by naughty things I mean harvest their Adam. While the whole thing sounds like something you’d hear on To Catch a Predator, its supposedly a huge focal point of the game because you can either save her for a little Adam or kill her for a whole bloody truckload of it. The entire “morality” choices of the game narrow down to this. It’s not that there are other choices and that they don’t make any impact, but this is IT. Either kill or save, and that determines whether you get the holy good guy ending or the piss bad ending. Either you’re a saint or your Hitler based on whether you decide to either save or kill these little girls, and there is no middle ground. They tout all this freedom and choice, but like Fable there is no “uh, maybe both” choice. Either your voice cures cancer or God kills kittens at the very sound of it.

That’s really all there is. There is really no customization of your character because he can use any plasmid a million times without consequence, and can use any gun at any time. There are these things called tonics which give you cool bonuses like getting more health from snacks, but there are a limited number of these which are actually useful and by the end of the game you have enough slots open to use all of the good ones anyway. There are no side quests or optional objectives to do. Hell, every objective is mandatory anyway. I thought that somewhere along the line I would be given a choice to help out the citizens or Rapture or kill them, but instead I ended up taking orders from a man on a radio for hours on end.

And while we’re still bitching let’s talk about game difficulty. More specifically, let’s talk about where the Hell it went. Last time I checked in FPS games, when you died you lost the game. Instead they’ve introduced this “vita-chamber” non-sense which brings you back to life every time you die. This takes away a lot of the danger of the game, and honestly I fell like it was the worst part. With these chambers you’re more willing to take stupid risks because all of the consequence has been taken away. This also made it a lot less satisfying finding creative ways to kill Big Daddies since if you were stupid and simply starting plugging away at him you could go back five minutes later to do it again.

This part also made the game somewhat frustrating because in order to kill some bad guys all you had to do was whittle away their health while taking numerous trips to the vita-chamber. This process of attack, die, walk back, repeat is incredibly frustrating and holds up the game a lot, especially when there are infinite enemies in the game. Yes, supposedly the citizens of Rapture are “living, breathing” people who walk from place to place, but instead of making the game believable, it made it annoying as fuck.

The Bottom Line

I suppose, however, I am being a bit unfair. I’m not one of those untalented hacks who tries to pass of unwonted criticism as a proper review, and truly I found Bioshock to be one of the best games I’ve played in recent months. I’m actually really excited over how this turned out because it’s been a long time since a game has made me forget about both lunch and dinner without me even realizing it. Like Rapture, Bioshock has a lot of cracks in it, and they are somewhat obvious. However, don’t listen to the tiny voice in the back of your head pointing to these flaws. Smother it out with a large dosage of Bioshock. This game is amazing and certainly worth whatever children you may need to sell to get your hands on it.