An atmospheric take on retro-futurism, this game should be loved just for the art direction alone.
The gripping story holds a touch unlike any other: The events evolve around a last-century world where life is torn apart by the constant confrontation with the soviet union. Our hero, a nameless, silent man, supposedly living a successful life, gets unlucky enough to survive a plane crash in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. After diving out and discovering nothing other than fire and debris around, he hopelessly swims to a nearby beacon tower, and thus making the biggest mistake, or rather, the most important mistake in his life.
The beacon houses a Batysphere, a mysterious mini-submarine which takes our hero to an unknown underwater city named Rapture. As the story develops, we learn that Rapture was created by a man called Andrew Ryan, a perfectionist dreaming of an utopia, an ideal world where politics and hierarchy would exist no more. After building this masterpiece of architecture, he made sure that it would remain a secret from the outer world. He invited only the most famous of scientists and their families to dwell in the wondrous town and help in its development. Which resulted in a significant scientific breakthrough: the Plasmids.
Utilizing gene engineering, the scientists developed implants which would literally re-write the genetic code in a living being, allowing it to take control over the four elements, use telekinesis, hypnotize other people and more. These "temporary mutations" were "charged" by a substance known as EVE, which was sold throughout the city along with the Plasmids themselves, guaranteeing steady incomes and a stable economy. Little did Ryan know that even perfections backfire.
The equal life was met by anger from come citizens. Civil wars erupted, hundreds were killed, thousands were thrown to jail, but soon utter chaos broke free. The overuse of EVE turned most of the dwellers into mindless Splicers seeking ADAM, a substance left after a person's death. The city was plunged into a violent anarchy, and due to the complete isolation the world missed the creation and the downfall of the greatest city ever built.
As our hero descends into the now ravaged Rapture, he is welcomed by the magnificent underwater world, and as the Batysphere stops, the horrors that lie beyond that magnificence. The city is half-destroyed, half-flooded, bodies are everywhere, futuristic technology is blinking around and seldom voices of the mad Splicers are breaking the terrifying tranquility. As he discovers a shortwave radio transmitter, he contacts the one and only sane survivor in town, a man named Atlas. With his help, he is going to fight his way through to Ryan and demand answers, eventually escaping the hellish city.
Though there is no significant development in the hero's personality, the morality choices he makes and the overall Half-Life styled storytelling ensure deep bonding with the character. There are plenty of plot points and interesting situations to keep the oil running, and multiple endings give even more motivation for a second playthrough. Bioshock is definitely THE winner of 2007's most captivating storyline.
Traditions are continued with the gameplay itself. As I noted above, what we get is a smart fusion of quality FPS and a little bit of RPG. The core mechanics are simple, we move around, utilize upgradable weapons, and advance through the flooded city. The world is linear, with enough backtracking and multiple routes to make this seem like the opposite. Apart from the obvious action mechanics, there is a smart weapon upgrade menu, a tonic menu (skills and perks, in RPG language), hacking upgrades (there are guard bots and vending machines to hack via a simple connect-the-pipes mini game), and, most importantly, the Plasmids themselves.
Now, this mechanic is definitely number one of the innovations. Apart from switching weapons, we switch the weapon type, or, to be more accurate, between weapons and Plasmids. Finding new Plasmids give you more mutation options, and there's always an eye to keep out for an additional EVE hypo to keep the thing running. After finding a specific Plasmid, you basically "shoot" it: Electrobolt sends electricity from your arm, Incinerate turns you into an automated fireball launcher, and so on. It's not about the mechanic itself, it's about the interactivity.
See, while electrifying an enemy merely stuns them, do this to a group of foes standing in a pool of flooded water and they'll fry to death. Incinerate to ignite an oil leak and observe live barbecue, former Splicers. And similar combinations come in tons. It's an extremely deep mechanic worth the exploration you will eventually do.
The enemies we encounter vary from basic Splicers (enraged citizens with everyday items as weapons) to a unique mini-boss styled entity called the Big Daddy. Now, after the chaos erupted, Andrew Ryan decided to do a quick clean-up and organized teams of Little Sisters and Big Daddies. Little Sisters were children, zombified by a parasite, driven to collect as much ADAM as they could. The Big Daddies, on the other hand, were developed specifically to protect them. The creature is an enormous walking bathyscaph with the parasite fused directly with the suit, sporting deadly weapons and generally being the perfect killing machine. While naturally neutral, if a Big Daddy is provoked by either harming him or his little companion, all hell breaks loose. Almost literally.
If you need ADAM, and you always need it, harvesting a Little Sister is the best option. But before doing so you must deal with the guardian. A provoked Big Daddy is basically an unstoppable bull charging to kill you, but with enough wits and smart Plasmid use he can be taken down. And that's when you get to do the noted moral choice: Little Sisters can be killed to gain maximum ADAM, or you can choose to eliminate the parasite itself, thus getting much less of the precious element but ensuring a happy end to the child and the story itself (and yes, that's as much as I'm going to tell you).
After understanding the way Bioshock's world works, there is no going back from the constant experiments. Apart from a smart AI, the game possesses a working ecosystem. A special Plasmid turns some foes rouge and they attack their former allies, thus ensuring an entertaining spectacle or just buying you enough time to apply another medpack. There is a similar Plasmid which makes a Big Daddy think you're a Little Sister. Do the math.
Applying such an old-schooled touch to a primitive gameplay, 2K made Bioshock feel like one of the most ingenious compilations of game ideas ever. Delving deeper into the mechanic gives you more surprises, more ways to solve problems, both static and live. Got bored from a grenadier not giving you a moment of breath? Use telekinesis to throw his grenades back at him. Big Daddy is a step away from a pool where you can bolt him? Pick up that teddy bear lying on the sofa, ignite it using a leaking gas tank and throw the improvised explosive in the giant's face, toppling him backwards. Noticed a wired trap blocking your way? carefully remove and place it somewhere more suitable for your pursuers. A Splicer will be off the water before you'll change to Electrobolt? Freeze him with a matching Plasmid and cheerfully blast him to a million pieces. List goes on.
It is more than obvious that an immersive gameplay along with a great story ensures decent atmosphere, not really needing additional upgrades. No sir: Bioshock possesses one of the most unique art directions ever applied to a video game, fusing a post-apocalyptic styled rubble and destruction with an architecture inspired from retro futurism (the way people thought of future technologies back in the previous century). Similarities with Fallout? Subtract the dirty gamma and add another layer of beautiful post-processing, plus a perfected Unreal Engine 2.5 running on DirectX 10, and there you go. That's the way Bioshock looks, no more, no less.
The flawless style strokes the fact that the raw art design stands high for a 2007 year game. But the pure graphical content has its flaws. Bioshock makes you see it as a polished world with the help of incredible lighting techniques and shading, but up close models look stretchy and textures can feel damp. Nevertheless, all the setting-necessary elements, like water, animation, level design and optimization are top-notch, not harming the atmosphere one bit, even reinforcing it.
There is an eerie charm to Rapture and it's deserted, spacious rooms filled with overturned tables and spilled wine. The Plasmid catastrophe happened right on Christmas Eve, so expected decorations and an overall cheery feel to the now demolished city are present. You'll even meet Splicers in carnival costumes wearing animal masks. All of the potential coming with the art direction was used to its best.
There are some complications regarding the audio side of the game, however. The mute hero is understandable, it's a time-hardened decision if anything. The music is organic, harmonically fusing with the atmosphere, and background ambience will make you feel the depth and scale of Rapture. But the overdeveloped (exactly) characters bring an unwanted cliché to the shiny game. Atlas, for example, talks with a believable accent, no pretensions to the actor himself, but what's with all those "Would you kindly"-s? Tolerable of course, but if you happen to notice the annoying trend, it may as well spoil the immersion. There are similar problems with Little Sisters, always talking to their "Mr. Bubbles" about angels and butterflies. ALWAYS. Right to the end. As though noting the stupidity of the topic, the Big Daddies just growl indifferently and sadly glance at their rusting drills.
But there can be no argument to say that all of this doesn't work perfectly together. There is a list of words fairly describing Bioshock as a whole, like: "Organic", "Self-confident", "Visually immersive", "Soaked in atmosphere", "Rewarding", "Awesome". Never has a game based on a generally (let's admit this) silly story element made itself look so honorary and ingenious, polishing even that stupid-themed script to perfection and playing out an outdated setting so believably. Presenting: one of the brightest examples of the reason people call gaming an art. Bioshock.
As of this review's publish date, 2K is already in deep development of Bioshock 2: Sea of Dreams, a direct sequel where a Big Sister will be introduced, and the "prototype" Big Daddy will be the main playable character. The game will also feature Multiplayer, entitled Bioshock: The Fall of Rapture, which will describe the events taking place before the first game from an unusual aspect. So why am I telling this. If you haven't played Bioshock yet, do it NOW. Because soon you'll have a much better sequel to attend to.