At one point, first-person shooters were fast-paced arcade-style games in which you dashed around corridors, blasting monsters from a first-person perspective. But Irrational Games is looking to make a very different kind of shooter--one that is big on creepy atmosphere and tells an alternate-history story of mid-20th century experimental genetics turned into a nightmare. If you've been following BioShock's progress, you know that you play as a character who finds himself stuck in Rapture, a ruined undersea paradise where society's best and brightest fled beneath the waves to lead idyllic lives. However, the inhabitants of the city have discovered the secret of "Adam," an addictive genetic substance that enhances their appearances and abilities. This substance, though, also causes their bodies and minds to degenerate, turning many into mindless monsters. Your character is riding in a plane that crashes in the middle of the ocean where the closest thing to salvation is a mysterious stairway with a bathysphere that leads down to the ruined city, and your adventures begin there.
You may know already that the world of Rapture presents a virtual ecology of different beings, including the Adam-crazed splicers (who will attack you on sight) and the pale-faced little sisters who draw Adam from corpses. This ecology also includes the massive and extremely tough big daddies who defend the little sisters with their lives even as you try to scrounge up Adam for yourself to power your character's own abilities, which can either be "plasmids" (active powers, such as the ability to hurl lightning bolts or freeze enemies solid) or "gene tonics" (passive abilities that are constantly in effect, such as increased stealth skills that mask your presence to certain enemies). We've covered how you'll encounter alarm systems, mechanized sentry drones, and turrets that will need to be avoided, destroyed, or hacked to work in your favor. And we've also covered the way the game tells its story, piecemeal, by way of audio journals and preloaded cinema reels left by Rapture survivors. These survivors include Atlas, an Irish immigrant who seems to be your only ally, and Andrew Ryan, the mastermind geneticist who appears to be the game's archvillain. Bioshock's story unfolds in a way that is similar to Irrational's cult classic game System Shock 2. Now, we'll go into a slightly more-advanced area of the game, Arcadia, which appears about a third of the way through BioShock. Please be advised that this preview may contain minor story spoilers.
Throughout the course of the game, your character will have been able to find and equip himself with a variety of firearms, such as a pistol, a shotgun, a ballistic grenade launcher, and even a Thompson-class submachine gun (better known as a Tommy gun), as well as a camera that can be used to snap photos of various enemies, further exposing their weaknesses. In addition, you'll be able to find or purchase different ammo types for your weapons that are better used against certain enemy types, such as antipersonnel bullets that can quickly bring down splicers or antimechanical ammo that can bring down sentry drones in a hurry. You'll also find (or buy) various mechanical spare parts you can use to upgrade any of your weapons (or your camera). Deciding which of your items to upgrade will be part of the game's strategy. Along with various Adam upgrades, upgrading items will add a role-playing game-like character advancement element to the game, even though you aren't gaining any experience points.
You'll also be able to pick up various Adam-based powers, either by looting them from fallen foes or hidden nooks and by purchasing them from various vending machines scattered throughout the area. However, as an audio log that you pick up early in the game suggests, injecting your body with Adam from fallen foes also injects part of their consciousness and memories into your character's mind. This is why you'll occasionally see ghostly figures reenacting their last moments when you enter a new area for the first time. In the work-in-progress version of the game we played, we began our updated adventure equipped with these weapons and several different plasmid powers; even so, we were hard-pressed to survive the latest leg of our quest.
By the time you reach Arcadia, the city's lush garden district, the mysterious Andrew Ryan has already become aware of your presence and begins actively seeking ways to eliminate you. In this case, he tries to destroy all the plant life in the city, thereby eliminating Rapture's primary source of oxygen, which would cause you--and most of the city's other inhabitants--to die of suffocation. To save yourself, you must rendezvous with one of the city's few sane survivors, a botanist who might have puzzled out a means to restore the city's plant life, which she suggests in one of many recorded logs you recover.
To get to her, you'll need to traverse several wings of the city, inhabited by hostile splicers that regularly respawn even after you've cleared them out. This is apparently because the majority of the city's inhabitants have become splicers that constantly roam the streets in search of Adam. Combat in BioShock seems to offer lots of variety: You can try to play it as a straightforward action game and plow through your enemies with guns blazing, but this isn't usually the most effective way to handle things. Splicers are a noisy group, often chattering constantly and incoherently about their Adam cravings as they wander the halls. You can use this to your advantage in getting the drop on them. In fact, if you care to, you can actually load up on stealth-based gene tonics that will make it harder for splicers or mechanical sentries, such as the mechanized alarms that are tied to flying gun drones and machine gun turrets scattered across the city, to detect you. By using stealth, we were able to eliminate enemies from a distance; we used lightning-based plasmid powers to electrocute splicers that happened to be standing in water, or we used fire-based powers to incinerate enemies that happened to be standing in a pool of spilled oil.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
However, in BioShock, you won't always have the luxury of a safe distance between you and your enemies. While you can obtain superhuman powers and carry some heavy-duty firepower, you'll be up against robot gun drones that can fly (and will constantly follow you until the alarm bell eventually shuts off) or gun turrets that are nested behind cover. You'll also be up against splicers that run and leap with startling speed but also possess some of the same genetic powers as you--some even carry guns of their own. You can expect to fight splicers that will hurl bolts of fire at you while becoming nearly invisible, shielding themselves from damage with their powers or dashing about at speeds too quick to follow.
Even though you spend much of your time exploring claustrophobic, enclosed areas, such as lavish ballrooms and pipe-filled pump rooms, many of BioShock's areas have multiple vertical levels. These levels include balconies and elevated walkways with prowling enemies that are sometimes hidden from sight. In several spots in Arcadia, and we assume other parts of the game, you'll walk into an area with a platform above you that's elevated just out of sight, though you'll be able to hear the angry mutterings of the splicers. As you cautiously inch forward, you'll often just barely catch sight of the enemies that were hiding on the upper level before they detect you. Those enemies will then immediately turn and bolt down some hidden staircase out of your view to prepare to ambush you from whatever unexplored twist or turn lies ahead.
Throughout the course of your adventure, you'll also come across little sisters and big daddies in search of Adam-laden corpses. The big daddies are, of course, charged with defending the little sisters from attack and are extremely tough, but they will leave you alone as long as you don't get too close to them. However, you can use a plasmid power to enrage them, causing them to attack any nearby foes. Unfortunately, we weren't able to bring one of these monstrosities down, even with the help of some hacked turrets. These guys can take some serious punishment; they require heavy-duty weapons and some creative plasmid use to take down, though it is doable.
Meanwhile, you'll also find various kiosks scattered across the environments that you can use to save your progress (the game autosaves when you get close to a respawn chamber), as well as to purchase ammunition, plasmid powers, and spare parts to upgrade your weapons. You'll find small stores of money on fallen foes or in nooks and crannies you discover along the way. But from what we can tell, it's not likely that you'll be carrying around huge piles of money throughout most of the game. Ammunition and "Eve," which is the genetic fuel that powers your Adam-based powers in an onscreen meter, are hard to come by, as are medical kits that partially restore your health. Those who played System Shock 2 may remember that it paid to be a packrat in that game; the same will be true in BioShock because you'll often find packets of chips and candy bars hidden in corners that very slightly increase your health meter. Or you may find a small wad of cash in the upturned cash register you only noticed because you were ducking below the countertop of a ruined saloon to avoid incoming fire from a turret. You will be able to find medical kiosks that can heal you as well. But beware--splicers will also make a beeline for these kiosks when they're injured. Then again, if you're aggressive enough, you can actually hack these kiosks using your mechanical skills to dispense poison instead, though you won't be able to heal yourself at that particular kiosk again.
In Arcadia, our first task was to recover a sample of roses from a sunken garden that had collapsed into an aqueduct. Once you get to the sample, you'll fight your way toward the district's botany control center where your contact awaits, only to find that you're just too late to save her. Through a thick plate-glass window at the end of a long hallway, you'll pick up the tail end of a conversation between her and Ryan. In it, you'll hear the industrialist menacingly inform her that she's gone too far in her research. Though we ran full bore toward the lab, we arrived only to see our scientist contact stagger backward as the lab filled with a black, smoky gas that suffocated her. Before she fell, she was able to scrawl the number "9454" through the smoky residue on the glass with her fingers: This was the code to enter the lab and acquire her final notes. Your mission, as you find, is to find bits of honeycomb from a nearby hive culture and samples of distilled water so that you can concoct an antidote that can be fed into the control panel at the botany lab, reversing the toxins that are set to kill the plants.
Everything about BioShock is different from your average, everyday shooter. It has a different look, a different feel, and totally different gameplay. Rather than just throwing as many enemies at you as possible, the game seems to focus on its intriguing story, creating an atmosphere through its unique and colorful look of a decadent art deco metropolis in ruins. At many points in the game, you'll also be assaulted by a constant barrage of audio cues from muttering splicers, rambling audio logs, ambient noises, and eerily upbeat music that plays in certain areas or gets played by certain usable kiosks. BioShock's unique approach clearly sets it apart from the average action game. Shooter fans looking for something different should definitely keep an eye out for this one. The game is scheduled to ship for the PC and Xbox 360 later this year.