BioShock Hands-On

After years of anticipation, we finally got to play the first two hours of Irrational's highly awaited action role-playing game, and we weren't disappointed.

Ken Levine and the BioShock team at Irrational Games have pulled a fast one on Electronic Arts. The 800-pound publishing behemoth may own the rights to the System Shock name, which prevents Levine and company from directly following up their exemplary second installment in that famous sci-fi action-adventure series. But luckily, EA can't copyright the distinctive gameplay mechanics and uncanny sense of atmosphere that made System Shock 2 such a classic. Irrational has brought those elements fully to bear in its new game, which has already been called a spiritual successor to System Shock 2 almost ad nauseam since it was announced nearly three years ago. But it's an appropriate label: Gameplay-wise, this is System Shock 3 in all but name. And so what if they had to come up with an original storyline to make this game? A declining undersea art deco utopia sounds a lot more interesting than a boring old spaceship to us any day.

We know BioShock will tickle the fancies of System Shock 2 fans the world over because we were fortunate enough to sit down with an Xbox 360, the latest game build, and a pair of headphones to actually play the first two hours straight from the title screen. Taking a cue from the old "if it ain't broke..." adage, Irrational has simply mapped System Shock 2's core narrative and gameplay concepts onto a new storyline, as well as a fresh milieu. The list of similarities is long and striking. BioShock too will see you happen upon a nearly deserted environment ruined by a recent, disastrous sequence of events. Again, you'll piece together the story of what happened as you uncover the recorded audio logs of the poor souls who perished--or worse--in the catastrophe. And again, you'll be remotely guided through danger by a mysterious informant. This time, your informant is a man named Atlas, whose identity wasn't revealed during our brief time with the game, but whose wife and children we do know are imperiled somewhere within the underwater complex where the game takes place.

Welcome to Rapture, where science can make your worst nightmares come true.

While System Shock 2 merely presented a serviceable sci-fi backdrop, BioShock's unique setting draws on mid-20th century influences in political ideologies, architectural design, pop culture, and music to create the ambitious, failed world of Rapture. The game doesn't bother with such details as your own identity; all you know at the outset is that it's 1960, and you're on an oceanic flight that's suddenly gone extremely wrong. After a brief opening cinematic depicting the crash, we found ourselves swimming in the mid-Atlantic amidst flaming airplane wreckage, bobbing luggage, and charred corpses. In the shadow of all this wreckage was a gigantic lighthouse rising inexplicably and ominously from beneath the waves. What else is there to do in such a bizarre situation but climb up the barnacled steps and go inside for a look?

As you descend beneath the sea in a retro-styled diving bell, you'll be treated to an old propaganda-film-style reel explaining what has just happened. It's all the work of Andrew Ryan, a strong-willed mad scientist type who tired of laboring for the benefit of others and set out to create his own society "where the great will not be constrained by the small," as he puts it. Ryan gathered only society's best and brightest; the finest scientists and artisans to populate his utopia. It was all made possible by Adam, the genetically mutable substance Ryan discovered, which has the power to imbue ordinary human beings with extraordinary powers. Want to achieve superhuman strength? Master the art of pyrokinesis for your next barbecue? Mix up an Adam cocktail, and it's all yours.

As you investigate Rapture's sprawling, doomed infrastructure, its crumbling art deco facades, and leaky corridors, you'll uncover the secrets of what went wrong. Stepping out of the diving bell, you'll see signs of a struggle: blood splattered across dropped picket signs condemning Ryan for apparently declaring martial law and confining residents to remain inside the city. As you'd expect (from what we saw so far), it all comes back to the Adam. We'd barely set foot onto the first platform of the city proper before running into a splicer, which is one of BioShock's common enemies and one of Rapture's former residents. As Atlas will quickly fill you in, it seems that overuse of Adam turns the subject into a crazed monster that fiends for--what else--more Adam. Imagine a crazed junkie dying to get his hands on a fix; only this junkie can throw fireballs out of thin air and move large objects with his mind. And those are just the basic enemies.

It will take an awful lot of firepower to bring down one of the imposing big daddies.

Luckily, the perils of Adam aren't enough to dissuade your own character from absorbing the occasional genetic superpower himself. In addition to the trusty wrench you'll immediately find, you'll soon discover a plasmid, which is BioShock's term for a genetic power-up. This gives you the electrobolt ability, which lets you throw an arc of electricity a few feet in front of you. Like all of the game's Adam-given abilities, electrobolt will come in equally handy in puzzle-solving and combat situations. For instance, you can use it to reenergize some controls for doorways or the many vending machines scattered throughout Rapture. But it's just as useful for stunning an enemy for a few seconds, during which one healthy whack from the wrench will put your enemy down for good (a combo that remains potent even after you start finding revolvers, shotguns, and Thompson submachine guns). Managing to sneak up on a couple of splicers wading through a pool of water and electrocuting them both in one move before they ever knew you were there can also provide a delightfully satisfying result.

Veterans of System Shock 2 will feel surprisingly at home when they take the controls of BioShock. That's because the controls, and more importantly your interface with the world of Rapture, are largely identical to those of Irrational's classic. You can pick up a bevy of helpful (and occasionally harmful) objects in the environment. You can also search every corpse, as well as many of the containers, safes, or drawers you find, for more items and currency. There's even a hacking minigame that slashes the prices on many vending machines or wins automated defenses to your side. (Only this time, it's a hydromechanical setup that requires you to fit pieces of piping together to route water from points A to B.) And of course, you'll quickly find yourself in possession of more genetic powers than the electrobolt: We picked up flamethrowing and telekinetic abilities just in the first few areas of the game. You'll only get to carry a couple of abilities at a time, so choosing your best powers at a machine called the gene bank will become a large part of strategizing for future encounters.

You'll need a mixture of weapons, genetic powers, and ingenuity to solve the city's mysteries.

Luckily, per the development team's mission statement for BioShock, you'll be encouraged to tackle those encounters in any number of ways. We got to see an Irrational team member play through a later sequence in the game from an area called Port Neptune three separate times, taking a different tack on each run. Heading into an area filled with splicers, security turrets, and even a big daddy (those burly diving-suited thugs charged with protecting the ghastly, Adam-collecting children called the little sisters), the player first tried to simply gun down all opposition but naturally didn't survive very long for his efforts.

But the second time through, he snuck up and hacked the turret. Then he turned it away from himself and toward his enemies. While they were busy with that, he showed the audience how he could set a splicer on fire with pyrokinesis. Later, when the enemy jumped into a pool of water to extinguish the flames, he could electrocute it for the final kill. On the third play-through, the player used some sort of projectile pheromone to send the big daddy into a rage, causing it to fight with the nearby enemies while the player was free to use environmental tools as he saw fit. This primarily involved planting a handful of sticky bombs on a nearby barrel, then using telekinesis to hurl it across the room as a big and highly explosive bomb. There will be numerous such scenarios throughout the game where you'll be able to choose how to approach a combat scenario. That is, if you decide to fight at all.

BioShock will offer you a degree of moral choice too. As it turns out, those little sisters are still real little girls deep down. If you do manage to bring down a big daddy, which is no mean feat, we can assure you that you'll have it in your power to restore the little sister to the innocent little girl she used to be, allowing her to run off into the bowels of Rapture and find a safe hiding place. Of course, you could also be a big jerk and just kill her, allowing you to harvest all that delicious Adam for yourself. But Levine assured us that taking the moral high road on this particular issue will have story- and gameplay-relevant consequences for you later on in the game.

Like most of the game's secrets, Levine and company aren't talking about those consequences. There were a great many things that actually had us scratching our heads during our brief demo. How did Ryan discover Adam? And where did it come from? Who is this Atlas guy? (We're pretty sure he won't turn out to be Shodan, at least.) How did he know about the plane crash, not to mention the identity of your own character? Speaking of your enigmatic avatar, why does he have what appear to be chains tattooed across his wrists, which were only briefly visible during one plasmid-consuming animation? Who's inside those big daddy diving suits, anyway?

Some of Rapture's residents will be less pleased to meet you than others.

At least BioShock's cinematic and narrative qualities are as compelling as we'd hoped, so you'll get to fully enjoy the impact of each of those secrets you uncover. Like System Shock 2, you'll occasionally see ghostly afterimages that play out often-macabre previous events for your grim viewing pleasure. As mentioned, those audio logs that were so effective in establishing System Shock 2's storyline are back here. Again, they'll run the gamut from Rapture's most brilliant (and often twisted) scientific minds to Ryan's inebriated socialite consort whining about the excesses of Adam at a New Year's celebration. You should also expect lots of tense scripted events to occur within the gameworld. (The savage first appearance of a big daddy is one moment in particular we aren't likely to forget soon.)

The development team is in the final stages of balancing gameplay and applying artistic polish to BioShock. The game is looking incredibly rich, thanks to the Unreal Engine and Irrational's own modifications to it. Currently, the game is slated to hit both the Xbox 360 and PC in August. For those of you wondering how BioShock will straddle PC and console interfaces when similar past games have famously failed to do so, Levine offers a novel but simple solution: Two separate teams of designers are working on the controls and interfaces for each version. And after the extremely impressive first bit of BioShock we've tried so far, we may just have to play through both of them.

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399 comments
Humorguy_basic
Humorguy_basic

Having watched the movies and trailers and played the demo, I am ready to announce that at less than 20 hours gameplay, not enough different enemies, and a reported less than steller ending, I am going to stick with STALKER and the STALKER follow-up along with maybe Mass Effect and Precursors for the rest of the year, (only if they turn out to be as good as the pre-hype) Oh and that big deal with the Daddies and little Sisters and that 'moral' question? How exactly is letting a little 8/9 year old girl become normal and then releasing them into the Bioshock world of death and destruction and splicers and god knows what A GOOD THING? I would almost say killing them is the kinder thing to do in that environment, never mind the ADAM you get from doing it! So I am sorry, if you look at it logically, there is no moral questions. You only have two bad choices, so it barely matters.

NitemareDragon
NitemareDragon

Whew...looks great. I'm getting it, you better believe that!

20Hacked12
20Hacked12

This game looks bada$$ i mean who wudnt want to kill giant robots in and undersea city its everyones dreams. :D

flavort
flavort

I am just dying to get on this game. I have not even watched but maybe 2 videos about it had have limited my reading on it to skimming til I see a prediction of the final product. I want to be be as much in the dark as possible before playing it.

bignick217
bignick217

I played the original system shock back in 97 and quickly became a fan. I had to wait over a year after the release to finally get my hands on a copy of system shock 2. I still consider System Shock 2 to be one of the best games I've ever played. Ever since then, I have been waiting for another system shock or another FPS/RPG done in a similar style. I can't wait for this game to come out and will be the first time in years that I will actually pre-order a game. Especially considering that it's being headed up by Ken Levine, who was the Lead Desingner in System Shock 2.

Creekano
Creekano

i think i wont buy this i would rather wait for GTA 4 to come out that might be a better buy

f789790
f789790

I'm finding too many great games coming out at once. AHHHHH! WHAT DO I BUY?????

strawberryheart
strawberryheart

No mingfu, thats Halo 3. But this might come pretty darn close. It looks awesome and the underwater feel is really neat. Only one thing.....why would you want to shoot electrobolts if your underwater and your suit is made of metal and plastic? Just a thought. Can`t wait to play it.

koolmodean
koolmodean

dats fully sick cant w8 till it comes out it looks like the best game in 2007 so far.

mingfu
mingfu

The best Xbox 360 game in 2007!!

Dezuria
Dezuria

"hahaha stupid PS3 fanboys...its exclusives you ****" Uh, not really. I'm no "fanboy" but, I do have a Wii and a PS3. No 360 as of yet.. Thankfully, Bioshock is NOT a 360 exclusive, because we're getting it on the PC the same day, for $10 cheaper. :) Why is it that everytime a game is coming to only the 360 or PS3, rather than both, people laugh at people who own the other system? Get over yourselves. It's a friggen video game system, not your religion, stop 'defending' it as such.

Arsenal140
Arsenal140

hahaha stupid PS3 fanboys...its exclusives you ****

Lucas_371
Lucas_371

Great Game!! Waiting for it.

ctmorsejr
ctmorsejr

I have been eagerly awaiting this game ever since I finished System Shock 2 and have been upgrading my PC over the last couple of months to be ready for it (C2D E6600, 2 X 8800GTS 640 MB, 4 GB RAM). If it's half as good as it appears it's going to be, it will be great.

HellsKing
HellsKing

The interface looks nice...because there is NO interface besides what your looking at. Lookn forward to August!

pkdorx3
pkdorx3

I hope its at least half of wha its hyped to be

1mpthra
1mpthra

You know what... 1 reason whwy i am going to buy this game and the main reason is quite **** up... KILLING LITTLE GIRLS!!!

michaelratliff
michaelratliff

this is without a doubt my next game i will buy ... on the role playing side of things this looks like on the best games out for the 360 so far

anjul
anjul

@ BL-kun, I can see why they'd make the little girls appear less human, i'm assuming it's so that you won't feel as bad killing one. They probably wanted to balance the options of taking the Adam, or saving her for the later benefits.

BL-kun
BL-kun

I must have this game! And Spikepigeo you're right even if it's somewhat even now once a new tech is released it'll blow consoles out of the water in comparison. Alot of people fail to realize that games on PC are made to scale which means they won't look the same once the machine is upgraded to new tech.......a point i think that is lost among most reviewers. Also is it just me or are they trying to make the little girls look alot less human now....

Orthrand
Orthrand

Cant wait, and it doesnt matter what system it comes out for i will be awesome.

Tsuska
Tsuska

Awww damn this is coming out right in the middle of my Trials and HSC...damn it, damn it....

spikepigeo
spikepigeo

All i know is that the PC version is gonna be better than the console ones. Nuff said. Go ahead console fanboys, curse me out.

The_AI
The_AI

I CANNOT wait for this danged game. It will rock.

bka4u2c_basic
bka4u2c_basic

System Shock 2 was the scariest game I ever played. It was just a great overall game play experience. If BioShock is any where close to game experience of SS2 I will be happy. Can't wait to load this baby up on PC.

sergey1945
sergey1945

Guys... I am sorry but i didnt start this comparaison crap. I am just saying CALM down on the hate on both systems... Thats all. Wtv happens happens. Dont start bashing the other one cause one isnt getting one game or the other thats it.. Just saying. Anyway. And sorry for the 250 million. I chequed and u where right. Sorry my friend. I am just saying. Dont say stuff like this game doesnt deserve this or wtv. Act ur age guys come on we are all mature. I baught both systems for a reason. If u only baught the Ps3 or 360 then its ur right and be happy with it. Dont get angry just cause the other system has the same game. Like Devil may Cry 4 coming out for 360 alot of Ps3 fans got pissed and started **** and now this game might come out for Ps3 and people start doing the same.

Holden1985
Holden1985

Sergey1945 ps2 sold nowhere near 250 million units more like 110-120million and Bioshock not coming to ps3 i find it funny that random site have confirmed it. But the developers have said nothing also did you know the world is flat and not round.

arczero01
arczero01

This game looks great so far. Sadly theres not way I'll be able to get it because of my mom and my little brother who likes to watch every game i play.

chillyd4life
chillyd4life

What are you talking about sergey1945. This article was only a brief introduction of BioShock, not an article of which system needs to stay around. Come on man, get with the program.

sergey1945
sergey1945

I aint a fanboy... If u saw that i mentioned that i have both systems. PLus the Wii. But i dont really consider that the next gen console. I am just saying thats all. And u cant say anything about the Ps3. U have to give it Minimum a year. Cause Ps2 was a failure too. But it climbed on top. WAYYYY on top by selling more than 250 million units or more i aint sure. Xbox 360 to. Didnt start off to great but look it at now. Besides. i love the fact that both companies have competition. If 360 or ps3 ends up being the only next gen console. Then they can do wtv they want, release games whenever they want and charge us wtv they want. With both systems competing againts each other. It keeps things balanced. So plz stop stop saying that u hate Ps3 or 360. WE need both of them

laballbi
laballbi

Im in a long waiting for Bioshock...finally it is here . But , I have a question : why they dont release a System Shock 2 XP version. I would love to play one of my favourite games again !

basketcase0493
basketcase0493

ok no one cares if this game is going to be on the ps3 because the ps3 was a failure from the start. this will be one of few great games that actually makes it onto the abysmal platform that is the playstation so leave now fanboy

hadi_f
hadi_f

System shock 2 rocked because it was full of surprises. I don't read the previews and stopped watching the games footage because that will kill the magic. If I do then It will be like watching a football game that you know the result. I only checked the conclusion though to be reassured that the game is coming along as expected

DragonfireXZ95
DragonfireXZ95

I wish we got to play a demo... I'm sick of these companies not releasing demos... at least give us something to drool over while we wait for these awesome looking games!!

tmcheang
tmcheang

The game rocks!!! It is cool.

DawnBurn
DawnBurn

Nice review Brad. I haven't played SS2 but Bioshock is sounding intriguing. Maybe I'll learn how to play FPSes someday.

sergey1945
sergey1945

Guys... If u read earlier. ON both 2 sites that i posted. This game aint exclusive to PC and 360.... It will come out for Ps3 Just not soon. Thats it. But 3 sites have confirmed it. and even the owners too that this game will come out for PS3 just later. Dont believe me. Than google it. Just stating the facts. Cause i own both 360 and Ps3.

CaRD0N
CaRD0N

This is the one game I actually need. I saw the trailer for Bioshock on G4...that is what sealed me buying a 360 over the PS3. The PS2 is what got me through college but as Bob Dylan said, "the times they are a changing." In short Bioshock, please be all I hope.

Thor560
Thor560

Looks pretty cool the graphics look amazing

Holden1985
Holden1985

generalish wrote I feel ripped that the console gets the game released so early while PC gamers have to wait until August. Well thats the same as the 360 then 24th August.

SMASHED_ASPHALT
SMASHED_ASPHALT

This game is going to be fun. And Disciple_Gamer you're correct, it's exclusive.