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BioShock Review

BioShock pack shot
Developer:Irrational Games (Now 2K Boston and 2K Australia)
Publisher:2K Games
Genre:First Person Shooter
Platform:PC
Official Site:http://www.2kgames.com/bioshock/
Release Date:August 24th, 2007 (UK)
Reviewer:Craig laycock (Cragtek)
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I'm going to be upfront about this: BioShock is the best game I've played in a good while. So many games these days are hyped and hyped to interstellar levels, but when it boils down to it most just don't deliver. BioShock delivers and then some.

And while some PC gamers may have held the very justifiable fear that the multiplatform nature of BioShock would lead to a watered-down gaming experience, they needn't have worried - BioShock is arguably the most intelligent game since the excellent Deus Ex. Every component in this game has been carefully thought out; each player experience tuned and perfected to the very highest level. As a work of art, BioShock is a masterpiece - Irrational's opus magnum. And I'm not just saying that.

If any message should come out of the success of BioShock, it's this: developers should never be afraid to be influenced by literature. Just as Deus Ex drew on real world myths and legends to push it's twisting tale from pillar to post, BioShock draws heavily from the excellent Atlas Shrugged - a novel by Ayn Rand about one man's struggle to keep his business running while society collapsed around him - mixing it with cinematic overtones and a whole new level of player freedom to incredible effect. This is the deepest game you'll play for a long while.

For all this gushing about literary influences, though, at the heart of BioShock lies a wonderfully-executed FPS, varied and free-spirited enough to give you a deeply enjoyable gaming experience. Variety really is the key. While System Shock and System Shock 2 (BioShock's spiritual predecessors) focused very much on hardcore under-the-bonnet stats to keep the player engrossed, BioShock simply says: "here's the environment, here are your tools… go get 'em".

And it's fun. Great fun. Those tools come in the form of standard weapons (machine guns, shotguns, pistols) and plasmids - powerful genetic enhancements which allow you to manipulate the world around you. On top of this there are tonics, which provide boosts to your abilities. We'll get to this; don't worry, but first, a little back-story.

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BioShock is set in a crumbling underwater metropolis created by Andrew Ryan, an industrialist who felt there should be a place for the greatest minds in humanity to come together without fear of having "the sweat of their brow" taken away from them, by Washington, Moscow or by God. In its pomp, Rapture was a glorious, thriving city, taking this hidden-away section of mankind to extraordinary new heights. Key developments in technology and genetic engineering took place way ahead of the work being carried out on the surface. But then it all started to go wrong and Rapture fell apart. Sounds like a good time for the player to show up.

Your plane ploughs into the icy cold water of the Mid-Atlantic in 1960 and you're all alone. The only thing in sight is a decaying art deco lighthouse; the surface access to the underwater world of Rapture - a marvellous hope from out of nowhere. A hope which soon turns to fear.

But this is just the beginning of a terrifically woven storyline which combines elements from literature, cinema and the game world to impress upon the player in a very visceral way exactly how this city came to crumble. It's an absolutely fantastic advert for gaming, providing an incredibly seamless storytelling system with the player - and his choices - at the heart of it.

But that's quite enough about the story. As incredible as the plot may be, most will be buying BioShock for its FPS action - and let me tell you, it doesn't disappoint. Once you're in the swing of things, the pace is relentless. Enemies will attack you from all quarters and to stay in one piece you'll have to use every tool at your disposal. Now, about those plasmids and weapons…

Plasmids are one of the best elements in BioShock, and the more of these you pick up, the more fun you'll have in combat. Freeze an enemy, burn an enemy, electrocute them, throw them up into the air, make them forget what side they're fighting on… all these tools, as well as being hilarious, are the brushes with which you can paint your creativity. Think of the world as a simulation, a canvas. If you set an enemy on fire, their immediate goal is to try and put themselves out, which means finding water. Water, as any schoolboy knows, conducts electricity. Wait for them to jump head-first into the water in a desperate attempt to stop the burning and… Zap. Fried baddie.

I entered one area completely full of splicers (the genetically destroyed humans found wandering the game world). In the centre of them all was a Big Daddy, one of the huge, lumbering beasts of Rapture designed to protect the Little Sisters (small girls who roam the city looking for corpses to gather Adam from). They won't attack anyone who is not posing a threat to their Little Sister, but this particular Big Daddy looked up for a fight, so I opened the doors and threw a plasmid called 'enrage' at him.

Enrage does exactly what it says on the tin. Big Daddy went mental, and as the automatic doors closed, all hell broke loose. I waited until the screaming and gunfire stopped and re-entered the room to find the Big Daddy practically unscathed, standing in a load of corpses looking rather pleased with himself. Nice.

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The interactions between the Big Daddy and the Little Sister are a thing to be marvelled at. She's genuinely helpless without him and his only role in the world is to keep her alive. When you watch them together, walking along, you could be fooled into thinking there was a human bond there. Love, perhaps. This game, as you may have gathered, messes with your mind.

I won't lie to you. I killed that Big Daddy (after dying five times, it has to be said), leaving the Little Sister all alone. Heartless as that might sound, the game almost forces your hand and requires that you take them out in order to gain the Adam you need to survive in Rapture. It's a nice touch which means you'll have to make some pretty strong moral decisions. When you've taken down the Big Daddy, leaving the Little Sister alone and helpless, what do you do? Do you harvest the Little Sister for maximum Adam (a process she won't survive)? Or do you save her and turn her back into a normal little girl for less Adam?

These moral choices are fairly integral to the plot of BioShock. While they build substantially on games that have come before, you still get the slightest feeling they could have taken it a bit further and extended it beyond this concept of gatherer/protector. But make no mistake; this game is as deep as they come.

Death in BioShock is handled somewhat uniquely, and the concept won't suit everyone. When you die, you will never receive a 'Game Over' screen. Instead, you are rebuilt in a Vita Chamber. Think of it as respawning. The game world won't have changed - if you took down three splicers, they'll stay dead. This is a device which ensures the player does not become frustrated in difficult sections of the game, and I can see why the developers have done it. I've left games on my shelf having become frustrated at tricky sections in the past - and it would be criminal to do that in the case of BioShock, so absorbing is the storyline.

However, some will see this as evidence of making the game easy for the sake of it. After all, if you have unlimited lives, who cares how long it takes you to clear a tricky area? You're still going to get it done.

On top of all the remarkable plasmids the game offers, you have a range of conventional weapons available to you too, from the trusty wrench right through to the devastating chemical thrower. The ammo available for these weapons means you'll have to be very sparing with how you use them, however, and it's often best to use them in concert with your plasmids. For example, freeze your foe and then smash them to pieces with your wrench. Switching between plasmids and normal weapons isn't difficult at all once you've mastered it, but your first few encounters may result in some frantic scrabbling around with the controls. With each conventional weapon, there are three different types of ammunition. With the plasmids thrown in, BioShock offers you a massive choice of weaponry to play with.

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Tonics provide boosts to your abilities. For example, you can pick up tonics which allow you to freeze people by hitting them with your wrench, tonics which render you invisible when you stand still, or which allow you to sneak past security cameras without them picking up on your presence. They're a handy boost, and you can gain them by either finding them lying around, buying them, creating them yourself using a U-Invent machine or through the research camera.

You pick this up not far from the start of the game - the idea being that you use it to snap foes in action (or from afar for fewer points) to garner critical information about them. Get enough good shots of a particular type of enemy and you'll get damage bonuses against them as well as the possibility of getting new tonics. Getting a Big Daddy in a nice spot before twonking him on the head with your wrench and grabbing a snap before legging it is a whole breed of fun unto itself.

You've no doubt heard me mention machines throughout this review, and they undoubtedly play a big role in your stay in Rapture. Vending machines are the bread and butter of your daily grind, and you'll be using them with money you find on corpses, or in cash registers, to buy health packs, bandages, plasmids and more. U-Invent machines allow you to assemble components you've gathered into weapons, giving a further incentive to fully scavenge your surroundings. Power to the People stations allow you a one-off free upgrade to one of your weapons, such as extended range on the chemical thrower, or less recoil on the machine gun

Most of the machines in Rapture can be hacked. That goes for security cameras (turn them friendly so they'll send bots after enemies), turrets, vending machines (cheaper prices and rare items become available) and just about anything else you can think of. The hacking process is carried out through a mini-game based on the old game Pipe Dream, which sounds somewhat trite, but is actually quite engaging and works rather well. Difficult hacks can be bypassed through buyouts or by using auto-hack devices, but these options cost money - and lots of it on the more difficult hacks.

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The art direction in BioShock is superb. The graphics really do look tremendous and the artists have really captured the spirit of an underwater city, isolated and alone, yet at one time teeming with life. The art deco surrounds fit the dystopian feel perfectly and there are times when you'll just stop and stare, open-mouthed at your surroundings. Plankton and fish swill past the windows, neon lights blaze out across the underwater currents and enormous art deco statues rise out of the sea bed, proclaiming the greatness of man. If Blade Runner was set underwater in the 50s, it would probably look something like this.

The sound and music in the game is subtle to the point where you barely notice it, yet on closer inspection it's there, an ever-present rumbling, lifting occasionally to highlight key moments. It's cinematic in its approach, and entirely successful at evoking mood. My favourite section of the game involves a chap named Sander Cohen and it is at this point that the quality of the sound direction really comes to the fore and grabs you.

The voice acting in BioShock is terrific, too. There wasn't a single moment where I felt the illusion shattered by a hackneyed, ill-delivered line, something which is sadly all-too-common in many games today. The audio diaries (a storytelling device designed to give you an idea of the individual experiences in Rapture) are all delivered with aplomb.

Summary

BioShock takes the FPS genre forward another notch. Not content at just being a simple shooter, it encapsulates all that is good about the gaming medium from an artistic standpoint and catapults it to a new level. Not afraid to get its hands dirty with cinematic and literary influences, it is an incredibly well-written and executed emotional journey through the ghostly remains of one man's dream. It will make you feel things you haven't felt before when playing games. It will make you think. And how often can we say that about the average FPS?

The bottom line
9.5 / 10

Good stuff

  • Emotionally and morally engaging
  • Visceral, beautiful environments
  • Clever, engaging gameplay
  • Deep and triumphantly meaningful

Not so good stuff

  • Contentious handling of death
  • No, that's it.


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