A good game that would have been great if the gameplay meant something.
First, let's talk about the good. Make no mistake: This is perhaps the most jaw-dropping beautiful game on the 360. Every enemy, wall, weapon, piece of ammo, item, and piece of rubble looks is rendered in the most painstaking detail imaginable. The game's vaunted water effects also deliver, with water so vibrant in some cases the player would want to swim in it were it not for the dead bodies and what have you. The game maintains a consistent 30 frames per second, and that can be bumped to 60 by those who don't mind losing some graphical quality. However, to dumb down the graphics would be an amazing disservice to what is doubtlessly the best visuals the platform has had to date. Only some menu hangs near the end of the game mar the silky smooth presentation.
The game's visuals aren't just a hit technically, however. The ruined art-deco landscape tries very hard to catch that 50s feel, with cheesy Fallout-style billboards and lots of bright neon lights. Realizing graphics aren't everything, 2K Boston backed the game up with a voice acting cast that sounds like they stepped out of a time machine: the voices just feel accurate to the time this game takes place. It's just a shame that the optional subtitles are so out of sequence that those who find some of the accents hard will have to hear something multiple times, or review it from the back-button menu.
This brings us to the crowning jewel of Bioshock: its story. It's the early 60s. After a freak airplane crash sends the player into the middle of nowhere in the ocean, a single lighthouse leads him to the underwater city of Rapture, designed to be a special place free of governmental oversight of any sort – basically a neo-con paradise. Underneath the promises of creator and ruler Andrew Ryan, however, is a city that's gone straight to hell. The shops and habitats are in ruins, water is leaking everywhere, and mutated freaks nicknamed “splicers” are running about wildly, looking to attack any stranger on sight, hoping for just a bit more ADAM: the genetic material used for the plasmids that ultimately brought war and death to Rapture. And amidst the chaos are the Little Sisters and their Big Daddies, the former collecting ADAM from the corpses strewn about while the latter protects those little girls from any Splicer looking to snatch a bit of ADAM for themselves. Through audio diaries and radio transmissions from the major actors, the player will learn just how this city sunk into such complete and utter ruin, all while confronted with the moral choice of either saving the little girls from their plight or slaughtering them for more ADAM. And this is where Bioshock starts to unravel as a game.
From the beginning, the player is presented with a world in which death is not a threat. Should the player die, he's merely respawned at a Vita-Chamber with just under half health and all weapons and items. This wouldn't be so bad if the Vita-Chambers weren't all over the place. Granted, the player doesn't just appear where he died a la Prey, but it seems like such a token effort when there are so many Vita-Chambers. This in effect removes any challenge, even from the Big Daddies, who are the toughest enemies in the game outside of the final boss. In fact, the final boss is the only time in which death carries the permanent “game over” with it. It's a good thing the player doesn't die, however, as the weapons and plasmids are stupidly weak, even in their upgraded forms.
Most plasmids (attack magic) have three levels, meaning it's possible to find bigger lightning bolts and fireballs to hurl at opponents if the ones currently on call aren't that good. In addition, each weapon has two possible upgrades. However, even when upgraded, the magic and weapons just don't cut it against the enemies from the third level on. Indeed, by the time the last level rolls around, players will be returning to previous levels to try to earn some money in order to buy ammo and medicine from the vending machines strewn about all over the place. Perhaps this was to compensate for the ever-present Vita-Chamber, but this makes the game more tedious than difficult. For gene tonics (passive buffs), it's hard to tell if they're having any effect, except for some of the more obvious hacking related buffs. Then there are the Little Sisters. After killing a Big Daddy who has a Little Sister in tow, the player is presented with a choice: save the girl and get a little ADAM, or kill her to get a lot of ADAM. Initially, this seems very important, as ADAM is required to purchase plasmids and gene tonics from Gatherer's Garden vending machines. However, at the end of the day, the player will receive just as much ADAM regardless, thanks to gifts that will be given to the player after every three saved girls. As such, the most challenge one gets from saving the girls is having to wait until the next gift. For something touted as a big moral choice, it would have been far more real had it influenced something other than the ending – perhaps if you really DID have to live with fewer plasmids and gene tonics for going the good guy route.
As if all that wasn't enough hand-holding, the game features a ridiculously robust guidance system: an objective arrow (that can be thankfully turned off), a map that points out objective locations, and even an in-game hint system. The game goes beyond being accessible and gets downright insulting with its insistence on almost forcing the player to go a certain way. A damn shame, really, considering the story-fleshing diaries are often in out of the way places.
Indeed, the whole "game" feels like little more than a vehicle for telling the story. While the story is amazing, to be sure, it would have perhaps been better off as a book or a movie if 2K Boston were so determined to completely neuter game play. As it stands now, Bioshock is only a somewhat average game with fantastic graphics and storytelling.