BioShock is a great game and a truly extraordinary example of atmosphere, environmental design and storytelling.
In BioShock, you play as a guy named Jack. It’s 1960 and you’re on a flight over the Mid-Atlantic when something goes horribly wrong and the plane crashes into the ocean. As the only survivor, you make your way to a nearby lighthouse mysteriously jutting up from the middle of the sea. You quickly discover that this is no ordinary lighthouse, but the entrance to an undersea city called Rapture. Built by the phenomenally wealthy Andrew Ryan, Rapture resembles a major American city of the 1940s, except for the fact that, you know, it’s at the bottom of the ocean. Rapture has seen better days, though, and the once glorious city is now largely in ruins, and is entirely infested with homicidal maniacs. As you progress through the game (with the help of seemingly one of the only normal people left in Rapture, a man named Atlas who communicates with you via radio), you’ll piece together Rapture’s history and play an important role in it yourself. You’ll have to accept the rather odd convention that people have left audio diaries all over the place for you to discover, but if you can suspend your disbelief on this point, you’ll find a fascinating, thematically rich story waiting to be found in Rapture.
Rapture itself is definitely the star of BioShock. It’s a great concept that is fully realized, with details everywhere that give it a sense of being a real place with a real history. Although by 1960 the United States was already grooving to Elvis Presley, Rapture, cut off as it is from the surface, seems to be stuck in the 1940s, culturally speaking. There are neon signs and posters and radio advertisements that give it an authentic 1940s feel, and you’ll also hear numerous songs of the period. Of course, Rapture is no ordinary city. It’s a fallen high-tech utopia, but even the technological marvels fit seamlessly into the game’s sense of period. There are gears and pistons plainly visible in every corner of Rapture, and if you’re spotted by a surveillance camera, the robots dispatched to deal with you aren’t sleek killing machines but whizzing, coughing flying machines constructed from metal and apple crates. Simply put, Rapture is one of the most fascinating settings ever provided by a video game. It’s a joy just to soak in all the sights and sounds, and the level of craft evident in its design is something that can really only be appreciated by playing the game.
That’s all well and good, but first and foremost, BioShock is a game. So how does it play? Thankfully, it plays very well. BioShock is essentially a first-person shooter, and while those homicidal maniacs (called splicers) will constantly be coming at you with baseball bats, guns, grenades and other devices, you’ll get to blast away at them with pistols, machine guns, shotguns, crossbows, grenade launchers, and chemical throwers. Each weapon has three different types of ammunition available, and the type of ammo you use in any given situation can make a big difference in the weapon’s effectiveness. You also have a wrench to whack bad guys with when you get up close and personal. While the melee combat here generally doesn’t have quite the same level of visceral impact as it does in other games such as Condemned, it’s still pretty intense.
On their own, though, conventional weapons aren’t always so effective in BioShock. The most significant element setting this game apart from your run-of-the-mill shooter in terms of gameplay is what are known as plasmids. These are substances that were marketed and sold in Rapture that people can inject themselves with, rewriting their genetic code and giving them new abilities. Over the course of the game, you’ll find plasmids that give you all sorts of powers. You’ll be able to shock your enemies, freeze them solid, set them on fire, pick up objects with your mind and send them hurling at your enemies, and much more. At most you can have six plasmids equipped at any one time, but devices called gene banks are conveniently located all over Rapture enabling you to switch out the plasmids you have with you. The plasmids give you a lot of freedom in terms of how you deal with your enemies, and you can opt to constantly switch up your tactics, or to simply find a strategy or two that work for you and rely on them throughout. In addition to the plasmids, there are also various types of tonics you can acquire which give you passive abilities that are helpful in combat, hacking the machines you encounter, and so on, and as with the plasmids, you’ll have to decide which ones you want to have equipped.
While you’ll find first aid kits and other items all over the place to keep you healthy, and of course you’ll need ammo for your weapons, your ability to use plasmids relies on a substance called Eve. Your supply of Eve is replenished by using items called Eve hypos, and each time you use one you’ll see Jack forcefully jab the needle into his wrist. That’s pretty harsh, but it isn’t the only way in which the game earns its M rating. BioShock is not for the faint of heart. There’s a significant amount of grotesque detail to the game in addition to the pretty constant graphic violence, and a fair amount of colorful language to boot. Perhaps the game’s most potentially disturbing aspect, though, is the ethical choice it presents you with time and time again. To acquire plasmids, tonics and upgrades from machines called Gatherer’s Gardens, you’ll need this stuff called Adam, and you can only get Adam from Little Sisters. Little Sisters are young girls who gather Adam, and each time you encounter one, you can either opt to rescue her, or to harvest her. If you choose to harvest her, you receive more Adam to spend on powers and upgrades, but the child does not survive.
Of course, getting the Adam from Little Sisters isn’t as easy as just walking up to them. Little Sisters have protectors called Big Daddies, and they are fierce. Fighting them is definitely the high point of the game’s combat, and the impact that the game may lack while you fight splicers comes through in full force against these guys. They’re big, lumbering men in diving suits with powerful weapons who, when angry, can charge at you with remarkable speed.
Despite the fact that Big Daddies are formidable opponents and that you will surely fall to them and other enemies numerous times in BioShock, the game is not particularly challenging. That’s because of the fact that, when you die, you’re revived at a nearby vita-chamber without losing any of your possessions, and any damage you did to an opponent before being killed will not be removed. (Sometimes splicers will run to a nearby health station if they’re badly hurt, but Big Daddies never will.) So ultimately it doesn’t matter if that Big Daddy kills you twice or twenty times. You can slowly chip away at his health until he’s finally done for. Players who like a stiff challenge from their games should probably choose the hard difficulty from the get-go, though even this doesn’t make the game especially difficult. The biggest issue in terms of the game’s difficulty is the possibility of not finding enough health packs, EVE hypos and other important items lying around and not having enough money to buy them, but generally the game provides you with enough to get by. At times you may even find yourself passing up lots of ammunition and money because you can’t carry any more, though you’ll still want to hang onto the more powerful sorts of ammo for use in the right situations.
Speaking of buying things, there are vending machines and numerous other sorts of devices throughout Rapture that you can interact with, and you can hack the majority of them. With vending machines, hacking them results in lower prices and more items becoming available. You can also hack security bots to fight alongside you, gun turrets to attack your enemies, and so on. Hacking is done via a minigame in which you have to rearrange the tiles on a grid to create a tube that will carry a liquid to a specific exit point. If you fail, the machine could short-circuit, causing you some damage, or it could trigger an alarm, sending bots after you. It’s actually a pretty fun little game, and it can vary considerably in difficulty. Some devices have a low security rating so the liquid flows very slowly, while others have a much higher rating, resulting in a faster flow and a greater number of alarm and overload tiles which cannot be moved. Fun as the minigame is, though, there are so many machines that it’s to your benefit to hack that at some point you may find yourself growing tired of it. You’ll find and be able to make a certain number of one-use autohack devices, and you can spend money to bypass any device’s security system altogether, but you probably won’t have enough money or autohack devices to do this on a regular basis, so despite these options, you’ll probably find the minigame coming up a bit more often than you’d like. At least eventually, with an item called the research camera, you can do enough research on certain types of machines that your hacks automatically succeed.
As mentioned before, BioShock looks amazing. The world of Rapture is so richly detailed and fascinating, it may spoil you for other games. And the outstanding graphics don’t end with the environments. There are so many things that bring the world to life, like the use of light and shadow, and the wonderfully evocative body language of the Big Daddies and Little Sisters, and on and on. You can nitpick certain minor details of the game’s presentation if you’re so inclined. There’s a bit of twitchy weirdness that occasionally occurs in dead bodies, for instance, and you see the same vista of Rapture time and again through windows in different parts of the city, and you run into identical-looking splicers maybe a bit too frequently, but BioShock is so gorgeous that this is some serious nitpicking, and these issues and whatever other minor flaws you may spot won’t detract at all from your enjoyment of the game. The game also nicely gives you the option of deciding if a smooth framerate or graphical detail is of more importance to you. On the default setting the framerate will hiccup when there’s a lot going on, but you can sacrifice a bit of detail in chaotic situations and maximize the framerate if that’s your preference.
BioShock’s sound is every bit as extraordinary as its graphics. The songs from the period that you hear from time to time sound great and provide a terrific counterpoint to the action. The machines sputter and wheeze in believable ways; the cries of splicers are extremely creepy; even the patter of footsteps from Little Sisters and the sloshing, heavy steps of Big Daddies sound perfect. You’ll also get to know a number of Rapture residents from audio diaries and radio messages, and the voice acting is outstanding throughout. Again, you can nitpick and say that perhaps certain comments from splicers are heard a bit too often, but overall BioShock’s sound design is simply outstanding.
This is a pretty hefty adventure, and it’ll probably take you a good 20 hours or so your first time through. It certainly offers some replay value as well, because Rapture is so enthralling that you’ll naturally want to revisit it, because there are numerous viable strategies that you can use to get through the game, and because the decisions you make affect the game’s ending.
Perhaps it’s a bit disappointing that the way BioShock deals with dying means that the game doesn’t have much to offer in the way of challenge, but don’t let that stop you from playing it. BioShock is a feast for the eyes and ears and a remarkable example of the frequently untapped potential that games have as a medium for telling stories. And oh yeah, it’s a lot of fun to play, too.