The highly anticipated, hybrid shooter BioShock will be released soon, and we had an opportunity to play through part of the game, as well as to look back on the game's development with creative director Ken Levine. While we'll save our final impressions of the game for our review, we're pleased to say that the game appears to live up to most of the expectations. Get more information and see more movies and screenshots at GameSpot's BioShock launch center.
If you've been following the game in the past, you probably know about the various "plasmid" powers that are available to you. They're superhuman abilities you can acquire by injecting genetic material into your character's veins. If BioShock were a fantasy game, plasmids would be magic spells. In this case, plasmids make use of "adam" (the genetic energy that powers plasmids), and you use them to create various extraordinary effects in the world, which drains your "eve" meter. You can blast your enemies with fire, ice, or lightning, or create traps, or manipulate the environment to do your bidding. There are quite a few plasmids to choose from, so you can definitely customize your character with the ones you prefer. Although you start with the capability to wield only two plasmids at once, you can eventually unlock more plasmid slots (up to six total).
In addition to plasmids, you'll also be able to equip a number of "gene tonics." Tonics are basically ongoing enhancements that "buff" your character to make the going a bit easier for you in some parts of the game. There are three types of tonics that you can equip: physical, engineering, and combat. Physical tonics mostly involve ways to heal yourself, such as getting more healing from first aid kits, or restoring eve when you use a health kit. They can also restore health and eve when you hack something, or even restore health when you smoke cigarettes or cigars that you find lying about. (Smoking usually restores some eve but deals a bit of physical damage to you.) Engineering tonics strengthen your ability to hack into machines in the undersea city of Rapture, such as security bots and cameras. Tonics like "slow" will slow down the speed of the hacking minigame, which gives you more time to complete your connections, while "security expert" will let you hack into turrets, security cameras, and other security-related machines more easily (but not things like safes or door locks).
Lastly, combat tonics govern your fighting acumen. There seems to be a wider variety of combat tonics than there are in the other categories, given that so much of the game revolves around fighting. Thus, there are plenty of ways to add tonics that will enhance how you choose to play. So if you like blasting enemies with your freezing plasmid power, for instance, then you can use the "frozen field" tonic to increase the amount of damage you deal with cold attacks. A fair number of combat tonics actually revolve around making the wrench, your default melee weapon, more useful. Although you get a wrench early on in the game, the enemies you face off against will quickly become too powerful to take down with anything but real firepower, unless you down some extra tonics. While we played, we used the "wrench jockey" tonic to upgrade the attack power of the wrench, the "wrench lurker" tonic to let us move more stealthily and sneak up on enemies, and the "static discharge" tonic, which emitted an electric shock to anyone who struck us in melee combat. We wound up being pretty deadly with the wrench, which made for an entertainingly unique gameplay experience after spending much of the game using plasmids and ranged weapons to take down our enemies.
In keeping with the game's emphasis on allowing creative plasmid use, your choice of tonics isn't permanent. If you're having trouble in a certain fight, you can always head to the nearest "gene bank," where you can switch around the tonics that you currently have equipped. For example, even when fully upgraded, using the wrench is a poor idea when facing off against a "big daddy," the monstrous guardians of Rapture that resemble behemoths in dive suits. So if you feel the need to take one of them on, it's wise to switch out your wrench upgrades for things like "armored shell," which reduces the amount of damage you take. After you kill the big daddy, you can feel free to switch back to your other loadout. Gene banks pop up pretty often in BioShock, especially before boss fights, so you'll be able to experiment with plenty of different configurations until you find one you like.
BioShock is going to lead the fall gaming frenzy when it's released on the 21st, so you won't have long to wait to make your own gene-tonic combinations. Look to GameSpot for a full review of BioShock soon, as well as a game guide when it finally hits store shelves. For now, stay tuned for final thoughts on the game's development from creative director Ken Levine.
GS: Ken, now that the game's development is finished, tell us in your own words: What is BioShock? What's the purpose of the game?
Ken Levine: BioShock is a first-person shooter set in a failed underwater utopia. The game lets you use everything, from fully modifiable guns, to the amazing genetic powers, to every aspect of the environment (from fire to water to physical objects). Even your foes and the city's security system can be turned into critical allies.
GS: Why did BioShock end up as a first-person shooter, rather than a full-on role-playing game, like some of Irrational's other projects?
KL: Well, we've never really done a full-on role playing game. From a character-growth standpoint, BioShock is as deep as, or deeper than, our first game, System Shock 2 (over 70 genetic powers, modifiable weapons, hacking, skill tracks, etc.). The key difference is that our goal was to make everything immediate to the player, who would instantly understand the cause and effects of these dozens of powers. RPGs are somewhat abstract and "stat-based." We wanted the player to feel the effects of his character growth directly by his interaction with the world.
GS: What is it about BioShock that separates it from most first-person shooters?
KL: This is a big question, but I'll try to give you a small answer. Two things: the player and the world. Our goal with BioShock was to make a player-driven game, one where players would tell us how they would want to play it. That's why everything in the world behaves as you would expect it to, whether its fire, water, electricity, and the enemies. Because they act as you would expect them to, you can use that knowledge to improvise solutions in the game. I don't think there's a first-person shooter out there that makes you feel so powerful, so in charge of the environment.
The other thing is the world of Rapture, the underwater city where the game takes place. Rapture is a real place to us, and from the approximately 20 million comments on the demo, a real place to other players. It's a place you can get lost in, a place of a thousand surprises. People love games like World of Warcraft for the million tiny details that make sure Ashenvale is Ashenvale, and Molten Core is Molten Core. After players visit Fort Frolic, the insane realm of lunatic artist Sander Cohen, and the dying forest of Arcadia, they'll believe the world of a first-person shooter can be just as rich, and just as meaningful, as in a massively multiplayer game.
GS: Clearly, the game is aiming to offer elements of horror and suspense. Aside from having crazy people charging at you with knives and guns and superhuman powers, what do you think will really make BioShock creepy and unsettling for players?
KL: Rapture is a terrifying, and ultimately, sad place. The denizens of the city aren't monsters: They're people who've lost their minds and, more powerfully, their way. They live in a twilight of the present and the past, where they half-believe that their children are still alive, their bodies and minds are intact, and the world still holds hope. Walking around the city, you can hear them croaking off-key songs of the period, or talking to their long-dead loved ones, like the mother cooing to the empty crib in the demo.
These people had lives, families…and minds. And now they've lost everything. Unfortunately for the player, they're not happy about it. There's a rage in them that is born of fear, desperation, and loss, and it messes with your head.
We took a lot of inspiration from The Shining when making the game. If we end up half as scary as that, I'll be grateful.
GS: How do you hope people will play and enjoy the game once they get ahold of it? What kind of experience might the game offer to players with different personalities, such as players who might want to try to blast their way through the game with guns blazing, or players who might try to use stealth to win, and so on?
KL: My favorite aspect of BioShock is watching how differently people play it. The key thing is that we never lock you into a "class" where you have to play the game a certain way. We really let you approach any situation how you'd choose: with weapons, with genetic powers (plasmids), with hacking, with taking control of your enemies, by using the environment to your advantage…the list doesn't end. No room is the same, no battle plays out the same way twice.
GS: The game seems to have a ton of variety, an open-ended structure, and a lot of ways to customize your character. How do you think BioShock will encourage players to try playing through the game more than once?
KL: First of all, it's really one of those games where you'll want to save often--not because you die constantly, but because you're going to want to replay rooms to try things a different way. It's very "sandbox" that way. But there are also multiple endings and different growth paths based on how you interact with the "little sisters," the genetic gatherers who prowl Rapture guarded by the hulking big daddies. But BioShock is also a game of nooks and crannies. There's never been a shooter with more "non-critical" space, space designed for players to explore and discover. We think a real completionist could spend more than 30 hours going through the game. There's no shooter that can make that claim.
GS: How do you feel BioShock will be received by all those eager fans? What part of the game do you hope players will enjoy the most (or hate the least)?
KL: Well, it's pretty clear now from the demo that people dig the beginning, so now we have to see how they feel about the rest of the game. BioShock is a game of big characters and big moments. I love entering the world of Steinman, the insane plastic surgeon in the first level of the game, or Sander Cohen, a homicidal artist with a taste for the theatrical, in Fort Frolic. There's so many moments that I feel strongly about that I can't talk about yet. Because talking about them would spoil the fun.
GS: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add about BioShock?
KL: Well, first, I want to thank GameSpot. You guys were the first to believe in the game and ran the first story on it. If not for that story (and the outpouring of support from the community), we might never have sold the game to a publisher. The press and the public can make a difference. They can help show publishers that there's cool stuff out there that might not be something they're 100% comfortable with. BioShock pushes boundaries, both in gameplay and story, but it wouldn't have been possible if people didn't believe in it and get behind it.
GS: Thanks, but your success belongs to, and always will belong to, yourself and your team. Good luck, Ken.