BioShock (Windows)

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100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
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Written by  :  Cor 13 (174046)
Written on  :  Feb 17, 2008
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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Would you kindly play BioShock?

The Good

BioShock polarized opinions shortly after its release, mainly because it had claimed to be something it really wasn't: a true spiritual successor to System Shock games. The game was seen by some old-timers as a herald of simplified gameplay for the masses, an unworthy stepchild conquering innocent hearts with shallow splendor.

There is truth in those statements, but fixating on something a game does wrong doesn't help us enjoy a game for something it does right. The only question here is how much you care for that right or wrong. Personally, I was able to enjoy BioShock because I particularly value atmosphere in first-person shooters - and that's where the game beats much of the competition fair and square.

BioShock is one of the most stylistically impressive games I've come across. Call it Art Deco or whatever, but in fact it is a unique "Rapturian" style. 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 - is homogeneous, everything is designed in such a way that it suits the lush, decadent theme of the game. Rapture is instantly recognizable. Take a look at any BioShock screenshot and you'll know immediately it is from BioShock. There aren't that many games that can boast such an achievement. The game simply screams style, and from the first screen to the last you are invited to an unforgettable art gallery.

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 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. 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 with unseen force.

The contrast between the cozy "retro" world depicted in the game and the terrifying, desolate reality can be quite scary. There is something very majestic - and oddly touching - in the ruined city you'll explore. 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. Using an excellent gameplay device that did survive from System Shock, the scattered audio diaries tell you about a world and people that don't exist any more. You travel through places that were once full of life and have fell victims to destruction and decay.

Not everything is bad news in the gameplay department. Even though the game 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 deal are all those upgrades you can acquire. You won't be able to have all the upgrades during one playthrough, but that's what makes 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 receives 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 of your wrench. Fancy equipping a freezing enhancement on it and then blasting the icy statue of your enemy to pieces?

The much-advertised Big Daddies and Little Sisters may not represent the epitome of choice-based gameplay, but they do add an interesting twist to the routines of the genre. Basically, we are talking about a substantial amount of tough optional bosses with a bit of a schematic "good and evil" decision pattern through in. Like everything else in the game, those characters are nicely tied into the story, and your treatment of them will eventually affect the ending.

As mentioned above, recreating the story of the past using gameplay-related means is an essential feature that was faithfully carried over from System Shock games. If you've played those you know what I'm talking about: instead of developing from cutscene to cutscene, the story is hidden in the notes left by different characters, and it's up to you to unravel it. This is retroactive storytelling, 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. 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. Sure, things will happen in the game. There will be events that combine into a basic plot. But those events are but the surface, the exterior layer of the entire story.

It's also a really good story. Philosophical and social theories are generally a tricky business, and very few games managed to bake out of them something you wouldn't want to spit out right away. BioShock succeeds in wrapping every segment of the story in its philosophical message rather than just throwing that message in your face using contrived plot devices. The game adheres to the cardinal rule of storytelling - "show, don't tell"; and what makes it even better is the unique way it manages to do it though its own interactive medium.

BioShock also understands the importance of detail. 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 well-written and also well-acted. Far from descending into the melodrama of Japanese RPGs, the game tells those little stories in a mature and truly emotional way. Many of its characters change, and the changes they experience never fail to move. An honest, hard-working scientist turns into a monster obsessed by twisted ideals; an 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.

The Bad

I won't go into promotional issues here, but even without all the hype similarities with System Shock games can be felt just from playing BioShock. Sadly, many of those similarities are superficial: the developers of BioShock apparently failed to understand what made its older brothers work in such splendid ways.

System Shock games were wonderfully open-ended. The space station in the first game and the abandoned ship in the second were large, generous locations you could explore at your own pace. Not so in BioShock: granted, the levels are reasonably spacious and there is optional stuff to find almost everywhere - but they are still levels. Free-form exploration was one of the chief reasons for System Shock games feeling like RPGs. BioShock doesn't feel that way at all: it's just a fairly linear shooter with some fancy magic spells.

And even as such, it's not without its problems. I had a feeling that the designers wanted to make something more out of it - a deeper, more tactical game with more choices during combat. The fact is that you do have choices - but they don't mesh well with the game's mandatory fast pace and linearity. Since you cannot circumvent your enemies, the preferred alternative would be then blasting them to pieces in a fast and furious way. Instead, you'll have to micro-manage your plasmids and fiddle with your abilities just to get rid of yet another brainless splicer.

You are therefore overwhelmed by your possibilities, and that makes the game too slow, and hence overly repetitive. 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. Also, those activities feel artificial and disjointed: the game conveniently pauses for you when you attempt to hack a turret - and when it's done, you are confronted once again by a flurry of chaotic enemies seemingly taken out of an arcade game. By the way, hacking is handled like a minigame, which is a poor choice per se, especially when it's easy and monotonous.

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. They just gain more health and take way too long to kill. This doesn't really contribute to the difficulty because you respawn in nearby revival chambers should you die, while your enemies stand still and politely wait for you to come and finish them off.

Resource management is a valuable game mechanic that modern games like dumbing down so much. Collecting only makes sense when the collected item is scarce and when it takes a while to complete the collection. In BioShock, you have no problem packing machine guns and grenade launchers, but you can only carry nine healing items and five hundred dollars. Ammo is too plentiful and dollars are scattered around when there is nothing I want to buy.

The Bottom Line

It's not hard to see why BioShock enraged those who were craving for a true third coming of System Shock, but it would be imprudent to dismiss the game completely because it failed to fill very large shoes. False expectations and inevitable comparisons aside, it is a fun, artistic, and atmospheric shooter best enjoyed when you try to accept it for what it is and not for what it could have been.