For all the effort that goes into the marketing side of the game industry, such as the clichĂ©d proclamations that a new video game will break the mold and revolutionize their respective genre, very few manage to do so. In comes former Hollywood screenwriter and 2K Boston head honcho, Ken Levine and his team that have spent millions of dollars and years in development to create a game that many publishers originally shied away from. A game that they hoped could evoke the concepts of morality and choice, and as a result, transcend the first person shooter genre. Is BioShock proof that there can be innovation in a genre filled to the brim with similar titles?
2K Boston began by containing BioShock into a unique setting, taking place in the Mid-Atlantic during 1960, a man’s plane has plunged into the sea forcing him to take shelter in a nearby lighthouse, only to find that this is no ordinary lighthouse. As the lights inside the building illuminate the passĂ© Art Deco motif and bathysphere submersible, there’s a compelling temptation to enter the bathysphere to see what awaits. Descending many fathoms, a projector within the bathysphere plays a short film from a man named Andrew Ryan. Tired of the constraints of government, religion, and morality, Ryan chose to create a city built at the bottom of the sea known as Rapture. Here scientists could experiment without being stifled by morality, artists’ masterpieces can go uncensored, and its society need not worry about common surface-dweller constraints.
Unfortunately for Andrew Ryan and the rest of Rapture, their lack of constraint and moral boundaries led to the city’s downfall. Scientists made a breakthrough in genetic research by using a deep sea parasite to create ADAM. First, it provided medical cures and could be used to improve one’s vanity. Soon, experiments would follow to increase the use of ADAM and find various ways for Rapture to benefit from it. Without constraint however, scientists found ways to modify humans in almost every form; speed, strength, the control of elements, and much more. This led to consumer level market of gene splicing that made the use of ADAM through gene tonics and plasmids widely popular. Rapture’s community reveled in their new-found freedom and power and paid the price.
Upon arrival to Rapture’s port authority deck, the grotesque sight of a man being viciously killed in plain view sets the tone for the rest of the experience at Andrew Ryan’s Rapture. The tumultuous past of the city has lead to far too much chaos and civil war, but a friendly voice is heard over the game’s radio system requesting help for the remaining survivors of Rapture. The city is in ruins, the once illustrious Art Deco architecture has seen better days, and in order to survive the city’s destruction and hideous denizens players must decide how much they too will abuse the powers ADAM bestows.
Herein lies the game’s focus on morality and choice. The only method of gaining ADAM is through children nicknamed the Little Sisters, young female inhabitants of the city that have been genetically altered and brainwashed to be hosts to the resource. They scrounge Rapture for corpses soaked with it and plug away with their syringe to extract ADAM from the body before drinking it down themselves. Alas, without the resource survival in the underwater dystopia may be short lived. The choice is whether or not you will decide to “harvest” it from them or “rescue” the children from their current state. Harvesting them is of course viewed as the evil thing to do but grants you a much larger share of ADAM resources to aid you. This decision is made much more difficult by the emotions the Little Sisters is expected to evoke in the player. Her comments and demeanor manage to make you feel bad about considering harvesting them. Even as you pick her up to fulfill your decision, she swats away your hand and struggles shouting “No! No!” driving the concept further into your mind that this is just a child and you’ve now taken advantage of her. Are you immoral enough to kill off these helpless children or will you be their helping hand?
Of course to even get near them you’ll have to overpower a behemoth known as the Big Daddy that protects a Little Sister. These hulking brutes appear to be men in heavy armored diving suits carrying deadly weaponry to repel any of the inhabitants or the player from getting near the child. Think of these altercations as roaming mini-boss battles. There are many Big Daddies wandering the decks of Rapture and they serve only one purpose; to protect the girl. Their interaction between each other helps foster that moral choice you have when handling the child and the future of Rapture. There are also some nice touches to add to the two characters. For instance, should a Big Daddy be encountered before he has found a Little Sister, he or she will find the nearest vent and knock on it to call forward a Little Sister to guard as she does her business. Little Sisters use the vent system to navigate Rapture unharmed and they will only exit them if a Big Daddy helps them out. The relationship can be observed from a distance as the Big Daddy holds her hand and she refers to him as “Mr. B” or “Mr. Bubbles”. If that “cute” nickname isn’t enough to make the player feel bad for taking advantage of her and the Big Daddy, nothing will. While they are by no means aggressive to the player without reason, Big Daddies will rush you with their various weapons, pummel the floor to make you lose your balance and toss you across the room should you confront them or the child.
Combat with a Big Daddy or even a splicer can be described with a single word; layered. The various plasmids, tonics, and weapons you acquire through your travels around Rapture provide for some very empowering gameplay. Plasmids such as the Winter Blast, Telekinesis, and Electro Shock can be equipped quickly should you have them stocked in your gene tracks (with more slots available through upgrades purchased at the Gatherer’s Garden vending machines, using collected ADAM). Players can also make use of a variety of weapons such as the wrench, revolver, shotgun, machine gun, chemical thrower, and many others. In combination with the available plasmids, the combat possibilities are almost endless and all balanced exceptionally. Should players want to freeze their enemies solid using Winter Blast and then use Telekinesis to pick up an item to throw at the frozen enemy and shatter them with, they can. 2K Boston went for the approach of environmental combat, if it’s in the game and you can think it, you can do it. Enemies standing in puddles of water can be electrocuted to death, those that stand next to nearby gas tanks or flammable liquids can be lit on fire. Traps can be placed in the environments so that wandering enemies can be taken out or alert you of their presence nearby. That’s just scratching the surface of the gameplay possibilities given to the player throughout the course of BioShock. Players will no doubt enjoy coming up with numerous ways of taking down their foes.
Engaging in combat with Big Daddies and splicers throughout Rapture does have benefits to the player. Loot can be taken from the corpses of the dead and used for a variety of activities. The money scavenged from the bodies can help purchase items for use from vending machines littered throughout the ruined dystopia. Different kinds of ammo, first aid kits, EVE hypos to replenish your use of plasmids, are just the basic items available through these means. Health stations are also conveniently placed around Rapture at a cost. In addition, there are U-Invent kiosks later on in the game that allow you to craft ammo, tonics, and plasmids using the items you’ve found in the environment and on dead splicers and “Power to the People” machines that allow you to upgrade your weapons once per machine.
Further lending depth to the commerce activities in Rapture is your ability to hack any type of machine. Hacking is represented with a mini-game similar to the classic puzzle title “Pipe Dream”, where you manage different shaped pipes to ensure the liquid reaches the goal. Once it does, you’ve completed hacking the machine and can take advantage of it in numerous ways. For instance, if you’ve hacked a vending machine all items within it are now available at a lower price, U-Invent kiosks require less materials to make items, and the cost to use the Health station is lowered and it becomes only available to you. There are also combat uses for hacking, one such being the cameras and turrets laid out throughout Rapture that can be hacked to work on the side of the player, taking down wandering enemies and notifying you of their presence. Though the hacking mini-game progressively becomes difficult enough to offer a challenge it can become a bore and thankfully there is the option of skipping it by paying out a relatively small cost. As is, the ability to hack almost anything in Rapture goes a long way to adding a degree of freedom in making the environment just as much a weapon as your plasmids and guns. Much like hacking, players are also given a camera that can improve their talents. The more photos you take of a specific type of enemy, the more you learn about their weaknesses and uncover benefits to combating them. It adds an extra optional level of strategy to the gameplay. Can you sneak up on the splicers and get a photo or two in before they realize you’re there?
Aside from all of the intricacies of the combat and exploration, the ecosystem of Rapture is what drives this game. Rapture is composed of various decks that can be accessed through the bathysphere submersible each with their own unique atmosphere to them. The inhabitants of each massive deck fill the halls with an atmosphere unparalleled by almost any video game conceived. There is an ecosystem at work here in Rapture and it is full of life even without the interaction of the player. Aside from the gatherer and guardian relationship, the regular enemies known as Splicers scour the ruined city searching for meaning in their lives. Their interaction amongst each other is just as interesting as BioShock’s two centerpiece characters. Often splicers can be found arguing amongst themselves or working together to take down a Big Daddy. They too carry their own goal, to harvest ADAM should they find a Little Sister out and about. One particular couple argues over how they use their ADAM and another wandering splicer continually tells himself that Jesus still loves him. These characters exhibit a personality laden with superb voice acting and animations. Even early on in the game players can watch and listen as a woman hunches over a baby stroller singing a lullaby. It is apparent that almost everyone in this underwater society is a shell of their former selves and though you feel for their troubled past, your survival is far more important. This kind of emotion is not common in the FPS genre and 2K Boston have definitely stepped up to the plate to push boundaries. No longer are enemies just fodder.
Rapture’s ambient halls and creepy dialogue add to the atmosphere in BioShock. Including the audio diaries, AI dialogue, and other bits, there are thousands of lines of dialogue, perhaps more than most major motion pictures. Following the game’s short intro, it’s easily noticeable how much effort was put into the sound design. As you swim to the steps of the nearby lighthouse you hear the nearby flames surrounding the crashed plane and destruction, while the ocean waves surrounding you and heavy breathing of the player fill the speakers. Attention has been given to the enemy sound work, with the monstrous Big Daddy’s footsteps and whale-like bellow alerting you to their presence. In a nice touch, many of the vending machines and other items in the environment have sounds that feel ripped from the era that the game takes place in. All radio communication and audio diaries have an effect on them to sound distinctly aged and not as crystal clear as modern day audio recorders could have provided. It’s an indication of the developer’s commitment to creating a well thought out universe in Rapture.
Without a doubt, BioShock is very atmospheric and you can thank the art direction for being an integral part to that. The looming tyrannical statues of Andrew Ryan and the beautiful Art Deco architecture have been given a tremendous amount of detail. There are no rooms within Rapture that are similar and each deck carries a principle theme. Arcadia, a once beautiful Garden of Eden for Rapture has now been corrupted by its people and their abuse of all that ADAM brings. Fort Frolic, the center for all that is pleasure and art is home to Rapture’s art museums, theater, and strip clubs governed by Fort Frolic’s crazed chamberlain who has made this deck a frightening exhibit for his masterpiece. Despite these memorable locations, the question remains: Why Art Deco in 1960? If Rapture were truly created in the mid 40’s, Art Deco would have already been unpopular. For a society that is expected to have the best men and women in their respective fields, wouldn’t the artists and architectures have designed Rapture using a more modern style? Aside from that quibble, BioShock practically begs to be a resolution to the argument that video games are an art form.
BioShock is not without its faults. Though the game is playable in both widescreen and full screen, the widescreen aspect ratio appears to be cropped from the 4:3 (full screen) picture. This is the opposite of common procedure for widescreen in video games and film. While some may feel this slip-up is infuriating, the cropped picture will not harm the game’s experience in any form. There are other instances of odd things especially with the game’s physics engine and use of ragdoll. Many corpses have limbs that will flail wildly for absolutely no reason and can occasionally pull you out of what is a very immersive game. Walking down a corridor in Rapture only to find a Big Daddy’s corpse waving their hand is just… strange. There’s also an issue with subtitles. For all the time you spend listening to audio diaries, you can forget listening to them with subtitles, as they don’t follow the audio correctly. They’re either too fast or too slow.
Without the worry of too many bugs, BioShock can be experienced as it was meant to be. Or so you’d think, right? There’s a slight issue with the moral choice within BioShock. It’s just between good and evil without any levels of gray morality. Should you harvest any Little Sister, your future changes irrevocably. There’s never a chance at redemption even as your character develops and you learn the entire story of Rapture. To make matters worse, nothing important besides the ending video changes based on your actions which makes some of the later levels feel ill-suited to the character’s progression. The storyline plays out best should you choose to be the savior of the Little Sisters. So while there is a moral choice at hand, it feels like you’re most rewarded in the end as the savior rather than the villain, despite the upfront benefits of additional ADAM from harvesting. Despite this black and white nature of the decision making, the game should still be experienced at least twice. Much like many of the greatest films of all time, BioShock is layered with content clues that you may have missed the first time through.
Rapture is a society so vain that their lust for power and beauty would tear their utopia apart. The implications and social commentary exhibited by the game’s storytelling make taking part in the unraveling of events about as close as we could get to an interactive movie or novel. BioShock is more deserved of that title rather than what 2K has chosen to market it as: a Shooter. Sure, you shoot things and a lot of the core gameplay revolves around that, but BioShock is much more. For this reason, it’s saddening to think how many people will miss out on the experience. Gamers who generally avoid FPS titles may never consider this purchase and it’s also too bad the game is exclusive to PC and Xbox 360, as Ken Levine’s masterpiece should be played by anyone with the slightest interest in gaming. There are very few games that can provide a universe so intriguing that they force players to ask themselves questions about their own morality and decision making in the medium of video games. It’s easy to see that many gamers will walk away from their Xbox 360s having played BioShock feeling some emotional attachment to the events that unfolded right before their eyes and for that 2K Boston have succeeded in their goal. They’ve crafted a title that is so beautiful, intuitive, and compelling that it has made large strides in bringing innovation to a tired genre, strides only a Big Daddy could perform.
Final Score: 10 out of 10 - Excellent (How do we rate games?)