E3 06: BioShock Gameplay Demo Impressions

After what has seemed like eons, we finally got a chance to see the spiritual successor to System Shock 2 in action. Fans of that game won't want to miss this.


LOS ANGELES--As enormous fans of the open-ended gameplay and unsurpassed atmosphere of the 1999 Irrational first-person role-playing game System Shock 2, we were floored to finally see Irrational's next game, BioShock, in action. Irrational's general manager Ken Levine was kind enough to give us our first look at the game itself at E3 today, and we were frankly thrilled to find that the dynamic gameplay possibilities and outright creepiness of Shock 2 will almost certainly be equaled (if not surpassed) in BioShock. In short, if you liked Shock 2, you're going to love this. Our updated impressions, with new notes, are below. Please be advised that this preview may contain minor spoilers.

The demo began with the player character having recently entered Rapture, the failed experimental utopia-under-the-sea where the game takes place. According to the game's story, Rapture was built for an experimental society composed of humanity's genetic cream of the crop, and everything seemed to be going fine until it was discovered that the genetic material known as Adam could be used to further enhance the city's already exceptional inhabitants. (But everybody knows you can't gamble with Mother Nature and win, and it looks like once the citizens started messing with their genetics, they lost in a big way.)

Levine explained that the use of the substance began very gradually with a few inhabitants attempting to use the stuff to improve their appearances, until it was discovered that Adam could also greatly enhance one's physical attributes and abilities. As the stuff became more and more in demand, it became much rarer, and eventually led to the breakdown of the sheltered community's social structure and to the creation of...other things. Your character arrives at Rapture just after these events have taken place, while the potted plants are still green and while, as you soon discover, the blood that stains the hallways is still fresh.

Apparently, this stratified society of haves and have-nots has been overtaken by a host of horrible, genetically modified creatures, though Levine suggests that the creatures may have once been human, which adds both a psychological and a tragic element to the game's horror-themed atmosphere (something System Shock 2 fans should immediately identify with). Even the city's technical systems have begun to break down. The sea has thus started to "reclaim" Rapture, as Levine put it, with water pouring through cracks in the outer shell, security systems going haywire, and everything falling into general disrepair. Similar to how Shock 2 heightened its sense of horror by introducing an element of isolation (since in that game, you were stranded on a starship in outer space), Bioshock will heighten its horror by subtly reminding you every so often that you're trapped many leagues underwater in a ruined city that has begun to spring leaks.

Immediately after beginning the demo, we encountered a "big daddy," one of those burly diving-suited guys you've seen in recent BioShock screenshots. It turns out these guys are the protectors of the "little sisters," which look like little girls from a distance but are clearly something much more sinister when viewed up close, what with their greenish, pallid complexions and grotesquely enlarged eyes. Interestingly, neither of these entities bothered to attack the player when he stood still and watched, and the daddy only assumed a threatening posture when he approached, without actually attacking (though when we got too close, it didn't hesitate to violently shove us away from the girl). Already we were impressed with the variety of enemy behavior beyond a simple "see player, attack" routine.

Levine explained that these behaviors are actually governed by the "artificial intelligence ecology" that his team conceived of, and described to us, in our first world-exclusive preview of the game. Rather than attempting to deliver dramatic moments with scripted sequences that can break in certain situations, the designers at Irrational have instead decided to create a set of intuitive, yet completely nonhuman, behaviors (such as the roles of ants in an ant colony).

Anyway, these little sisters work as harvesters, roaming around Rapture and extracting Adam with oversized syringes from any human corpses they find. What do they do with this Adam once they've harvested it? Why, they ingest it and store it in their bellies, of course. Utterly revolting, that, and it merely added to the unpleasant atmosphere that the demo did an impressive job of building as it went. This behavior is all part of the artificial intelligence ecology--little sisters process corpses for Adam and harvest the stuff whenever they encounter a dead body, and big daddies protect little sisters from predators, such as the antagonistic splicers, which we'll discuss further on in this preview.

However, little sisters will also be your only source of Adam, and you'll need it to adapt your character to this hostile new world, which uses a unique, hybrid role-playing system (which we'll also get to in a bit). But unlike other role-playing games, which have arbitrarily defined "good" and "evil" extremes, BioShock won't have any kind of reputation system that keeps track of your actions or judges your character's moral alignment.

Levine suggests that there may be characters in the game that will reward you if you decide to protect the relatively helpless little sisters---yet if you can kill off one of these tiny worker bees without being noticed by the heavily armed and highly protective big daddies, you'll have committed the perfect crime. Unlike in, for instance, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, killing one of these children won't magically make all the guards in the world aware of your deed and hostile to you--it's what happens in the moment that affects what will happen next (and whether you'll be attacked by the game's security systems).

Oh yeah, did we mention those security systems? The mechanized gun turrets, hovering security drones, and wall-mounted cameras? As you might expect from a game from the creators of Shock 2, the world of BioShock will be hazardous to your health. You'll find that many of the automated security measures will be makeshift weapons: Turrets will be machine guns strapped to office chairs, and flying security drones will be dismantled outboard motors with attached pistols. Rapture will be the lived-in remains of a plush, upscale community of the world's elite, not a state-of-the-art military installation. Yet what surprised us most during our demo was exactly how well Irrational has managed to map the gameplay concepts of System Shock 2 onto this totally different, totally unique and original new setting. Levine says the team wants to give the players far more to do than they can handle in terms of abilities, paths, and general options for tackling a given situation. Thus, BioShock holds the same promise of open-ended scenarios that can play out in surprising and delightfully random ways based on how you choose to make use of your myriad available tools.

The free-form character building seen in Shock 2 will also make its return here. But where Shock 2 had nanotech-enabled skill upgrades for your futuristic soldier, in BioShock you'll gain "plasmids," which are biological augmentations that function in essentially the same way. Your plasmids will be interchangeable, so you can run with a few powers for a while, then swap some of them out and try others at the next opportunity. Those opportunities will come, at least in part, when you find one of the cheekily named "Plasmi-Quik" machines mounted on Rapture's walls (evidence of the highly capitalistic society), which are accompanied by sickeningly cheerful branding that must have been used to sell the plasmid lifestyle to the city's inhabitants before their downfall.

While swapping plasmids in and out of your character's various slots will be BioShock's version of gaining new skills with each role-playing character level, these Plasmi-Quik stations will, for the most part, allow only one use, and they'll be somewhat rare across different parts of the city. This means you'll need to choose wisely as you implant your next set of abilities--they may have to last you quite a while before you can swap in new ones later. The same will apply to your equipment--while you won't be picking up new weapons at every turn, you may start out the game with a prototype pistol that you can later augment with hardware parts scavenged from various parts of the city to give your weapon certain special abilities, which you'll need in order to deal with those pesky security systems.

So, about the security systems. Much like Shock 2's Von Braun, Rapture is full of security cameras, turrets, and drones that will ruin your day real quick if you set them off, and as in the previous game, you can hack these defenses with the proper skills to turn them to your own use or simply destroy them if you have the right weapons and ammo types. We saw another instance where the player needed to access a door across a large room, with both a daddy-and-sister pair and a splicer (another genetically perverted enemy, the third pillar of Rapture's horrid hierarchy) blocking the way.

As one of many possible solutions, the player used an aggressor-scent plasmid on the big daddy, causing the splicer to regard it as a foe and attack it immediately. The player then ran past them into the room, and the sounds of battle raged outside for a good 10 seconds before a couple of very loud bangs ended the conflict. Levine noted that in past demos, that fight had generally ended very quickly, and if you can't even predict the results of taking the same set of actions repeatedly, who knows how many possible scenarios you'll run into in this game. For the record, in our second viewing of this demonstration, the big daddy put down the splicer in no time flat.

Speaking of those splicers, they were the only overtly aggressive enemies we saw in the demo, and they look like lithe human females who just aren't quite right. But we couldn't quite put our fingers on why. Maybe it was the fact that the first one we saw immediately jumped up and started crawling along the ceiling when she tried to attack, or the horrible shrieks she made all the while. Levine pointed out that the enemies in the game, which are all products of Adam, have access to the same set of weaponry you do, which means that potentially no two enemies you face will ever have exactly the same armament.

However, splicers will be part of the AI ecology too, and once you understand that splicers will attempt to kill off little sisters, while little sisters will scream for help when threatened (but will otherwise be constantly searching for corpses to harvest), and big daddies will always attempt to defend little sisters, you'll be able to start experimenting with these different behaviors and attempt to use them to your advantage. Levine suggested, for instance, that you might find a plasmid that fools big daddies into thinking that your character is a little sister, which means you may be able to call on big daddies for help, yourself.

Rapture itself has a stylistically cohesive, 1920s art deco look to its architecture, the effect of which is all the more convincing when you factor in the presence of period-style posters and pop art adorning the walls, and even cultural touchstones like Jack Lawrence's "If I Didn't Care" piping over the loudspeakers of the deserted, ravaged record store. And the atmosphere of the game is oppressively creepy, with all those genetic mutants uttering appropriately troubling sounds and even disturbing audio logs of the departed citizenry of Rapture littering the rubble of the city.

Yes, just like in Shock 2, you'll find audio logs from previous inhabitants of the city, such as the musings of a demented musician who went mad with rage at a rival singer's constant parodies of his work--and eventually had her killed. And like in that game, if you pay attention to these notes, you may find clues that will help you solve specific challenges--for instance, once you learn of the insane composer's obsession with his rival, you might attempt to play records recorded by the dead singer over the loudspeaker, which might eventually coax the murderous musician out of hiding (though we're guessing he won't be in the best of moods). Not to repeat ourselves, but Irrational really seems to have taken absolutely all of the distinctive elements of Shock 2 and transplanted them into this undersea setting, which is one of the most original settings for a game we've seen in a long time.

It doesn't hurt that the game looks gorgeous running on Unreal Engine 3 technology, which Irrational has heavily modified and is using to include water volumes, HDR-enabled specular highlights, realistically weighted bodies that float in standing water, and more. We saw the game running on the Xbox 360. It was running smoothly in high-def and looks like it will feature a console-oriented interface whereby actions like item collection are mapped directly to face buttons on the controller. Though what we saw at E3 may or may not be final, it was indicative of Irrational's intent to have a minimal game interface.

For instance, according to Levine, the final game will have no separate inventory menu or paper-doll model of your character that you'll need to switch to and from by leaving the game momentarily. The interface we saw simply mapped basic functions to specific buttons on the 360 controller, which, in turn, opened up nested menus. For example, since BioShock will follow Shock 2's example of making ammo conservation a key gameplay feature, and since you'll pick up different kinds of ammo, you'll be able to switch ammo on the fly by pressing your ammo button and switching from, for instance, armor-piercing rounds to antipersonnel rounds. The PC version of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion recently took fire for maintaining a console-style UI, so we hope BioShock on the PC will avoid the same pitfall by including more mouse-and-keyboard-oriented interface hooks.

At the risk of hyperbolizing, BioShock is basically everything we hoped it would be, given its lineage. The game looks to capture and improve upon all the gameplay elements that made System Shock 2 so compelling, and it looks and sounds great (and unsettling) doing it. Just as exciting was Levine's description of the game as being all about choice--not just choice of gameplay, but choice of morality, as you'll be faced with difficult and ambiguous choices minute to minute. We're awaiting further details on BioShock with unfettered zeal, and we'll bring them to you as soon as we get them. Stay tuned.

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