Would you kindly play Bioshock?
Hype is a bad, bad thing. The worst kind of hype is the one created by the developers themselves. It's not good to sell your game as something it isn't. Fable
was not a realistic life simulation with unseen moral choices. Half-Life 2
wasn't a masterpiece of fiction with twenty millions pages of script. And Bioshock
is not yet another System Shock
, with branching gameplay that makes it impossible to write a walkthrough for.
But that doesn't mean that "Bioshock" is not a great game. Quite on the contrary.
False expectations and comparisons aside, "Bioshock" is an amazing game. If you're obsessed with System Shock games and constantly compare it to them, you'll only be disappointed and annoyed. "Bioshock" decided to be a more conventional first-person shooter, with all the elements from System Shock reduced. But that doesn't mean that its gameplay is worse. It is now a more action-oriented title, and an excellent one at that. In what it tries to do, it succeeds formidably. It is a fast-paced, nerve-tickling experience; and yet it is so much more refined than nearly every other FPS out there, that the word "role-playing" does come to mind, even though it's not as evident as in the second System Shock.
"Bioshock" throws at you so much stuff to experiment with, so many ways to eliminate your enemies and to deal with the obstacles on your way, that you'll be trying and experimenting throughout the whole game. I won't list here all those things that "Bioshock" allows you to do, just give some general outlines. Even though it is heavily combat-oriented and relies a lot on weapons, there is also magic (call it "psi powers" or "plasmids", it's still the same thing) and hacking; but the real crown of the gameplay system are all those upgrades you can acquire. Those upgrades are so numerous and come in a variety that allows to talk about role-playing, no matter how rudimentary it really is.
Basically, you can choose your own playing style, be it dependence on a certain weapon, hacking-oriented approach, or magic-using one. You won't be able to have all the upgrades during one playthrough, but that's what makes it so interesting: you'll have to choose. The upgrades range from simple stuff like raising the efficiency of healing drinks to really funky business, such as surrounding yourself with an electric field, so that any enemy who touches you will receive damage. You can, for example, play the game in a fully melee-oriented way. Equip melee upgrades, physical defense upgrades, and add some powers to your melee attack, and you'll be able to make it through tough situations with a couple of swings with your wrench. Fancy equipping a freezing enhancement on it and then blasting the icy statue of your enemy to pieces?
All those activities are graphically represented with a lot of attention to detail. Needless to say that the physics system allows you to pick and throw anything (with telekinesis spell), push objects, etc. The spell effects are fabulous. Casting fire and ice on anything will produce the necessary effect. Hitting anything will leave marks. In short, there is a believable physical world here; most things can be interacted with, instead of being just eye candy.
But boy, is there eye candy in this game! The graphics are absolutely stunning technically, but that's not the point. The point is that they follow a certain style, call it art deco or whatever, but in fact it is a unique "Rapturian" style. There is a remarkable stylistic unity in the game. Most of the things you see in "Bioshock" can only be seen in "Bioshock". Everything, every character, building, piece of furniture, photographs, clothes, machinery, random objects - everything is homogeneous, everything is designed in such a way that it suits the "retro" theme of the game. Rapture is instantly recognizable. Take a look at any "Bioshock" screenshot and you'll know immediately it is from "Bioshock". Can you say that about every other game? "Bioshock" simply screams style, from the first screen to the last you are invited to an unforgettable art gallery. Really, the graphic designers of this game deserve a special award for creating such a marvelous, ultra-stylish world.
Then there are sound effects and music, truly an experience of its own. The insane babbling of the splicers, the eerie recorded voices of dead people on audio diaries, the distorted screams coming from unexpected places, the creepy child voices of little sisters, the menacing, blood-chilling humming of their protectors - the sound effects of "Bioshock" are simply awesome. And those sounds come on top of old music - forgotten and desolate, like Rapture itself. Very old swing tunes, the kind of jazz that feels like it should be stored in a museum - comfortable and strangely sad, vulnerable music, which turns so scary when you realize to what it serves as background. "Bioshock" excels in sound department in a way few games did before. You listen to this game as much as you look at it. And if you do both, you are immersed into a strange, beautiful, disturbing world, with a magical atmosphere that draws you in from the moment you begin playing the game.
I found "Bioshock" very scary, in the best possible way. No, the countless splicers were not the ones who scared me. It was the contrast between the cozy retro world depicted in the game and the terrifying, desolate reality. There is something very majestic, and touching at the same time, in the ruined city which is the stage for the events of "Bioshock". You can fall in love with Rapture. It is beautiful. Yet it is also horrifying. All this marvelous work, all those visions, the ideals, the energy, the genius of its creators - everything was destroyed. The scattered audio diaries tell you about world and people that don't exist any more. You travel through places that were once full of live, and now all there is here is destruction and decay. I can't quite compare the feeling I had when playing "Bioshock" to any other game experience.
But what really makes "Bioshock" outstanding is its story-telling. Not even the story itself, the plot of the game - although I must say that it is quite excellent in its own right, with a great plot twist (actually, even two of them) thrown in just when you begin to think that everything is too simple to be true. No, what is great in "Bioshock" is the unique technique it uses for telling its story. Yes, I know System Shock has done it before, but "Bioshock" goes further and polishes this technique to utter perfection. If you've played System Shock games you know what I'm talking about: instead of developing from cut scene to cut scene, the story is hidden in the material which you can access exclusively through the gameplay. Most of the story events here happen before you arrive in Rapture. You uncover them by looking for audio diaries left by the different characters, and piece by piece figuring out what has happened.
It's retroactive story-telling, and it works wonders. The reason why I value it so much is because it is possible to implement only in a video game. Books and movies cannot do that. They can't have you, the reader or the spectator, plunge into their worlds and discover the story on your own by exploring it. What's more, this story, as crazy as it might sound, is almost entirely optional. Sure, things will happen in the game. There will be events that will combine into a plot. But those events are but the surface, the exterior layer of the entire story of "Bioshock". If you don't look for audio diaries, you'll never know most of the characters and never really understand what has happened, and how. If other games have open-ended gameplay, "Bioshock" has open-ended story. It is there, but you'll have to discover it. Just as you hunt for items to use and to equip, you hunt for the fragments of the story scattered around.
And what a story it is. It is so much more that just a description of events. First of all, "Bioshock" has a great character cast. Every diary is interesting; every character, from the magnificent two main villains to a simple citizen who has shared his final thoughts with you, has personality and has something to say. The diaries are excellently written and also excellently acted; in fact, "Bioshock" has some of the best voice acting in recent memory. So the story of "Bioshock", beside being just the tale of the city Rapture, is also a collection of personal side-stories told by its inhabitants.
What I loved about those stories is their emotion. Generally, "Bioshock" is a profoundly emotional game; cold games like Half Life 2
should learn from it. Far from descending into the melodrama of Japanese RPGs, "Bioshock" tells its stories in a most mature, yet very touching way. Many of its characters change, and those changes they experience never fail to move. An honest, hard-working scientist turns into a monster obsessed by twisted ideals; a light-hearted, easy-going dancer succumbs to her greed and betrays what is most dear to her; a cold and calculating Nazi scientist suddenly feels genuine love to her victims. Some of those stories shock you, some touch you, but they never leave you indifferent. Those characters grow as you discover their stories, and you become attached to them in a very strange way.
Two of the most unique "characters" in "Bioshock" are little sisters and big daddies; they actually have no personalities whatsoever, but their story is perhaps the most disturbingly touching one in the whole game. It's true that "Bioshock" doesn't offer you as many moral choices as advertised. But this one choice you do have - to kill the little sisters or to save them - nearly makes up for lack of others. The moment when you stand near a little sister, after having killed her only protector, and look at her, helpless, crouching in front of you, this little monster who was once a normal little girl, the victim of unimaginable crimes - this moment goes into the hall of fame of greatest video game moments ever. The choice you make shapes the personality of the protagonist, and leads to two entirely different endings.
Like any truly great story, "Bioshock" comes with a certain philosophy, a certain message. It doesn't just tells its story with an intention to entertain you. No, it wants you to think. It wants you to challenge your own vision of the world, to look deeper into yourself, to judge yourself as a human being. "Bioshock" is an intellectual and emotional challenge. It constantly asks the player questions. After I finished it, I continued thinking about it. I think about it now, not just about a game I'm writing a review for, but about something that had a certain impact on me as a human being. There are many definitions of art, and I think most of them are correct in their own ways. But one of the most flattering ones is to say that art is something that affects you personally and makes you think about yourself and your values.
"Bioshock" is focused on content. Everything in this game serves a purpose. Story, setting, characters, and even gameplay - everything is woven together to bring the message across. It has its own concept, a central idea, a lot of depth in the story, setting, and characters - it is a game you can discuss for hours after having finished it. It is truly one of the most story-heavy games I've ever played - and I've played a lot of them. It touches upon so many serious issues, and does it so gracefully, that nobody who values those things would be able to ignore this game.
All the variety in the gameplay is a bit disproportional when applied to the straightforward structure of the game. "Bioshock" is a linear, action-oriented FPS, and sometimes you are overwhelmed by your possibilities. That gets somewhat repetitive towards the end, because you'll be doing a lots of things at the same time - fighting enemies, hunting for items, buying things, etc., and most of those activities won't be new and fresh anymore. I have to say that the game does a great job at throwing at you more and more new stuff to experiment with, but at some point, you'll have seen everything it has to offer. I almost wished the last couple of levels were smaller and more straight-forward.
There is surprisingly little variety in enemies. It's basically the same splicers from the beginning to the end. Sure, there are several variants of them who behave quite differently, but in the end they are the same mutant humans over and over again. During later levels, the enemies become more powerful, but they still look the same and even have the same names.
I didn't like the fact you could carry only nine healing items and five hundred dollars, but had no problem packing machine guns and grenade launchers. It was quite annoying to constantly reach the artificial limit of money and to see all those dollars scattered around with nothing I really wanted to buy.
"Bioshock" is similar to other content-heavy games: you savor its creative sides up to the point of becoming annoyed by the necessity to play it. It works wonderfully as a first-person shooter and can still satisfy someone whose only concern is the gameplay; but for someone whose primary concern is to unravel its story, the enemies are too numerous, and the action too intense for long periods of time.
And of course, there is the hype. I'm sure many people judged "Bioshock" for what it was hyped for, not for what it really is. I don't understand why is it necessary to promise more and to deliver less. Especially when this "less" is still more than in most other games - only in a different way.
The Bottom Line
"Bioshock" is so much more than just an excellent first-person shooter. Sure, it is more inclined towards straight-forward action than the kind of gameplay seen in its spiritual predecessors, but there is nothing wrong with that. "Bioshock" wears different clothes, which are perhaps more simple and accessible; but no matter its outfit, what really matters is the beauty underneath. All its shortcomings have no weight compared to its sheer brilliance and deep content. This is an indispensable product for everyone who appreciate artistic value and content in their games. No matter how you look at it and no matter what you expected from it - it is truly an extraordinary piece of work.