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Bioshock (X360) Review

Billed as the spiritual successor to System Shock, 2K Boston’s (formerly Irrational Games) Bioshock is, at it’s heart, an FPS released for a console spoiled for choice where shooters are concerned, coming after high profile games like Gears of War and The Darkness and releasing a few short months ahead of heavy-hitters like Halo 3 and Valve’s The Orange Box. It manages to stand out from the crowd with it’s engrossing story, intriguing characters and fairly unique setting.

The game takes place in Rapture, a city built beneath the ocean. Rapture was built by Andrew Ryan, a man disillusioned with the world at large and the attitudes of its governments and religions. He saw Rapture as the chance to build a haven from the outside world, where men would be entitled to all they had earned and would not be limited by, in Ryan’s words, “petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small.” This attitude was fully realized with the discovery of ADAM, a substance at the bottom of the sea that allowed the residents of Rapture to modify their genetic structure, granting them superhuman abilities such as telekinesis.

Set in 1960, approximately fifteen years since Rapture was built, the player takes the role of a man identified only as Jack. While on a plane trip across the sea something goes wrong and the plane crashes. As the sole survivor, Jack spies a lighthouse inexplicably located in the middle of the ocean and swims towards it. This serves as the entrance point to the bold utopia that is Rapture, but almost immediately following a rousing pre-recorded speech from Ryan it becomes clear that something has gone very wrong.

Rapture is falling apart, with some areas leaking or entirely inaccessible. The city is populated by Splicers, men and women who have been corrupted and rendered insane by high amounts of genetic modification. They now live only to obtain more ADAM and will kill any un-spliced person they encounter. There are only a handful of people left alive in Rapture who have not spliced themselves into insanity, one of whom contacts you immediately upon arrival in the city. Introducing himself only as Atlas (one of the game’s several references to the works of Ayn Rand), he enlists your help in finding his family so that you can all escape the failed utopia. Face-to-face meetings with any of Rapture’s characters are rare, with most communication taking place via radio. This serves to provide you with objectives and advance the story without ever having to stop for cutscenes.

Atlas quickly introduces you to your first plasmid, an injection that rewrites your genetic code to provide you with new abilities. This is turn leads to one of Bioshock‘s most talked about features, concerning the presence of the Little Sisters and their Big Daddy guardians. The Little Sisters are young girls able to harvest ADAM from corpses, which makes them targets for the ADAM-craving Splicers, and the Big Daddies are hulking monsters in diving suits who exist to protect the Little Sisters. You are soon faced with the choice to harvest a Little Sister for the ADAM she holds, allowing you to buy new Plasmids to aid your survival, or try to save her, yielding less ADAM. Atlas is adamant that they are beyond redemption and insists that you need all the ADAM you can get to help his family (and yourself), while another character insists they can be saved and that doing so will be worth your while. The choice is left to the player, and the game has (brief) alternate endings based on this decision. A Big Daddy will only attack when the Little Sister is threatened, so it’s a good idea to scout around and find a suitable means of killing the Big Daddy before attacking because they are not easy to bring down.

Plasmids serve a range of functions, used for hurting or incapacitating an enemy, progressing through otherwise impassible areas and can even be used as traps, either directly or by manipulating the environment. In addition to plasmids, ADAM can be spent on Tonics. Allocated to specific slots for Combat, Physical or Engineering, Tonics grant passive abilities that affect you in different ways, boosting damage with physical or plasmid attacks, reducing damage taken, helping you avoid security systems, and so on. Plasmids and Tonics are by no means the only way to survive Rapture though. There is a healthy selection of weapons available (which fall into the fairly standard FPS weapon archetypes), each of which have multiple upgrades and ammo choices tailored to different enemies.

Rapture’s various security systems can also be hacked. Hacking takes the form of a mini-game, with the player having to direct the flow of current across a grid. Failure to do so hurts the player and there are also obstacles on the grid that will trigger alarms or deal a significant amount of damage. A successful hack ensures the system – be it a camera, mobile drone or turret – now works for you, picking off Splicers when they come near. When combined with certain weapons and plasmids it is possible to set up elaborate systems of traps able to kill or severely weaken a Big Daddy without ever having to fire a shot. The selection of plasmids, weapons, traps and hacking are an attempt to allow the player to choose how they approach each encounter, rather than limit them to one specific means to deal with each enemy.

Bioshock uses the popular Unreal Engine 3 to great effect. Rapture as a whole has an art deco style, with posters celebrating Rapture’s original ideals of freedom on proud display above the rubble and placards protesting against Andrew Ryan and Rapture’s broken promises. Even without following the story or knowing anything about the game it would be possible to see Rapture’s dystopian environments and understand a good deal about what was supposed to have happened there. This extends to the character models too; Splicers are deformed, some hiding their faces behind masks, while still looking human enough to be unnerving, while the Little Sisters resemble little girls enough to make the choice to harvest them a significant one in the player’s mind as well as in the story. Water is obviously a noticeable element in Rapture, both surrounding and leaking into the city, and some effort has clearly been made to make the water effects fairly realistic, whether trickling into a pool or charging down a corridor in a rushing torrent.

With a great deal of emphasis placed upon radio messages as a means to advance the story, it’s essential to have these messages voiced convincingly and Bioshock never disappoints. Whether through the direct communications of the main characters or the optional radio messages that litter Rapture the acting is never less than excellent, creating convincing characters that tell engaging stories centered around the fall of Rapture. The same goes for the enemies encountered throughout the game. The Little Sisters chatter happily to their Big Daddy while they traverse the corridors in search of ‘angels’ (corpses) and panic when somebody comes too close. Splicers will rant insanely while wandering the city, shrieking wildly when they find you and attack, with the only criticism being that there aren’t that many different Splicers in the game so you will hear everything they have to say again and again to the point of it becoming a little too repetitive. There is also a selection of music from the period within Rapture was set, short samples struggling to be played by jukeboxes scattered throughout the city, which all helps to draw you into the world 2K Boston has created here.

At it’s core, Bioshock is an FPS, and as such controls similar to most other console shooters. Players move with the left stick, aim and turn with the right and jump and interact with objects with the face buttons. The right trigger fires your weapon while the left uses your plasmid, with the left and right bumpers used to cycle through your selection of plasmids and weapons respectively, and can also be held down to bring up a radial menu for quick selection. It should all be fairly easy to get to grips with for anybody with even limited experience of a console FPS.

Bioshock is not without its flaws, however minor. As mentioned earlier there are a fairly limited amount of different enemies, and in that respect can make parts of the game repetitive. Also, contrary to some of the pre-release hype there is never a shortage of ammo or Eve (needed to use plasmids, functioning similar to mana in an RPG) and even when played at the Hard difficulty there is always more at hand, either dropped by enemies, scattered about Rapture, bought from vending machines or cobbled together from components at a U-Invent station, with money and components also in plentiful supply. The same can be said of ADAM, for even if you elect to rescue the Little Sisters instead of harvest them you still find yourself with more than enough ADAM to purchase every plasmid and tonic (and unlock the achievement for doing so), sacrificing only a few upgrades to Health and Eve capacity. It could be argued that choosing to rescue the Little Sisters should have denied the player the chance to purchase most of the plasmids, forcing them to survive with just the guns, hacking and traps. As it stands the ‘good’ choice is just slightly more inconvenient than the ‘bad’ choice.

The abundance of ammunition also means that it is possible to dispatch every enemy with guns, which is generally far quicker and easier than using plasmids or setting up elaborate traps. When combined with proper usage of the research camera (which steadily increases damage done to enemies as more photos are taken) it eventually reduces even Big Daddies into fairly trivial encounters, enabling you to kill them without taking any damage or even giving them opportunity to attack. Even if you are killed you simply respawn at the nearest Vita Chamber with a bit of health and Eve, with enemies retaining any damage inflicted upon them, so if played as a straight shooter it becomes fairly easy. Another criticism could be leveled at the amount of slots available for Plasmids and Tonics. With Tonics being split into three categories it is possible to have a range of Physical Tonics (for reducing damage and increasing health gained), Combat Tonics (for dealing damage with weapons and plasmids) and Engineering Tonics (for improving your hacking skills) all equipped at the same time, in addition to the Plasmids. This removes the need to specialize in any particular area and means you will always be competent at every possible method of dealing with enemies, when forcing or encouraging specialization could have greatly increased the replayability factor.

Some might view the lack of multiplayer as a criticism but, much like the Metroid Prime series, Bioshock is focused on the single player experience and any multiplayer element could have only ever felt tacked-on. Some level of cooperative play would have been nice (though would have made little sense within the story) but would just have been a nice extra rather than something worth criticizing the game for not having. The lack of multiplayer does however lead into the largest criticism that could be leveled at the game, that of replayability. Even taking into account the multiple endings it is possible to see and do everything in one play through the game (though chances are you’ll miss something and have to play through at least a second time to do it all), including earning every achievement, reducing the possible reasons for another play through down to simply wanting to do it all over again. Bioshock does at least warrant going back to again because of the strength of the story and the atmosphere of Rapture, but for some it won’t be quite enough. For those who are not overly worried about finding and seeing everything the game has to offer it could probably be run through in about eight to ten hours, while those who choose to explore and absorb everything within Rapture could potentially extend that by several hours more.

Still, these criticisms are only minor issues that do little to harm the quality of a truly great game. In terms of style, story, characters, acting and atmosphere Bioshock is almost unparalleled, standing tall alongside the greats of both the FPS genre and gaming in general. With a demo available on Xbox Live (or PC download sites for those with a machine that can run it at a decent graphical level) it’s well worth trying out.

2K Games
2K Boston
Release Date:
August 21, 2007
Final Rating:

Author: Ben Wilkinson

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