BeyondUnreal goes in-depth with BioShock, offering not one, but two separate opinions and a load of screenshots. Is this the game of the year or is it all hype?

During development, Irrational (now 2k Boston) made numerous comparisons between BioShock and its critically acclaimed System Shock 2. Cutting to the chase, I can tell those to whom it matters, BioShock is not System Shock 3. Numerous design decisions were clearly made to simplify the experience and keep you in the game. Some of those cuts come at the cost of depth, while others are more welcome for the sake of delivering an extremely streamlined and accessible product.

The game plays out on an imaginative stage called Rapture, an underwater city built in 1946 by industrialist Andrew Ryan. Rapture once thrived on the ingenuity of society’s elite, but fell into civil war during New Years Eve of 1959 and was locked down. The pawns in this conflict are the citizens driven mad by the excessive use of ADAM: a substance extracted from a rare stem-cell secreting sea slug. These entertainingly vain human-monstrosities called Splicers use this coveted tonic to gain extraordinary powers, though re-use of ADAM causes ghostly replays of tragic scenes to be witnessed by its user... surely not helpful to the clinging mental health of the masses. Genetically altered and mentally conditioned young girls called Little Sisters roam the streets of Rapture collecting ADAM from the dead under the protection of the fearsome Big Daddies. These fast and powerful horrors-in-diving-suits can really dish out the damage, but remain neutral in-game… until attacked. It is now 1960 and your plane is crashed in a remote location of the Atlantic Ocean. You are the only survivor and just happen to surface within swimming distance of a lighthouse: Rapture's single entrance and exit. Devoid of all hope, you descend...

Okay, so the story isn’t going to win many awards for originality and you have very little influence upon the storyline. Still, there are a couple of nice twists, a number of clever literary references, and a few compelling scripted sequences.

The Art Deco style proves to be an inspired choice because not only has that design movement not been fully explored in video games, but it serves as the perfect cheery setting over which to juxtapose its gory horrors. Level design is mostly top-notch and provides the player with a number of alternate routes and optional play areas, while it rewards the adventurous player with a number of worthwhile diversions and hidden treats. There are just enough side excursions to keep you from feeling as though you are on rails. In the hands of the level designers, BioShock becomes a living-breathing world; alive with details such as period-correct signs and just about every bit of clutter you’d find lying about in a city in the midst of chaos. You’ll stumble across entire families in their apartments, dead in front of their semi-operational televisions, and people evidently murdered as they relaxed in their bathtubs. BioShock succeeds supremely in visually realizing its world and your PC will be put to the test to display it in all its glory. It scales down fairly well making it possible to run well on mid-range machines, but playing at anything but the highest settings definitely compromises the experience.

Further immersion comes from the great tunes of the Great American Songbook of the 1920’s through 50’s, which emanate from nearby jukeboxes and Victrolas. An inspired moment occurs when overhead theater lights dim and Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers plays as Splicers sweep in from all sides. While in-game cut scenes move the story along, extremely well-acted hidden voice-diaries flesh out lots of the plot details. It’s up to you to find them. Environmental sounds are abundant and memorable and I find myself proclaiming out loud “Bienvenido El Ammo Bandito!” long after the game was over. Rapture’s populace wander the streets lurking in corners and lamenting their fate or hurling threats. The variety of random commentary is suitably impressive, resulting in humorous quips like Splicer surgeons shouting “I won’t hurt you… I just want to see what’s on the inside!” or “Nurse! Nurse! Can you help me find this patient?” My only complaint in the sound department is that the diaries are sometimes not audible over the ambient sounds unless you are in an isolated area. As a result, I began the practice of pulling up my world map - and therefore breaking the flow of the game - just to listen to them.

Rapture is overflowing with weapons and you’ll get a chance to upgrade them at Power to the People stations. You may “invent” new ammo and items at U-Invent apparatuses, and purchase new ammo and items at El Ammo Bandito machines and Circus of Values vending machines, but you’ll likely stumble across enough cash and junk to purchase just about anything and everything you might want. Supplies and cash are in such abundance that Irrational even felt the need to impose an artificial limit on the amount you can carry. Never is there a feeling that you need to carefully conserve your ammo, especially given the surprising effectiveness bestowed upon your default weapon – the lowly wrench. In fact, at one point, you’ll almost find it to be the weapon of choice, rendering all of the other more common armaments - the pistol, machinegun, shotgun, rocket launcher, chemical thrower, and crossbow – a last resort. They are all satisfying to use in their own right and you could certainly make a case that you could “role-play” by choosing any one of them to progress through the game, but when one stands so far above the others that it almost penalizes you for not choosing it… well, that’s poor weapon balance, and it is something that could have easily been fixed.

ADAM powered bio-genetic abilities called Plasmids unfortunately experience the same shortcomings as the weapons. The introductory Shock Plasmid is so superior to the others that you’d almost be crazy to remove it from your plasmid slots. Not only can it stun your enemy, buying you precious time to inflict more damage, but given that water permeates Rapture from every crevice you’ll find ample opportunities to eliminate entire groups of Splicers foolishly scampering about in conductive pools of water. The Flame plasmid can distract and kill the enemy en masse but it lacks Shock’s short-circuiting ability. Other Plasmids you’ll find less useful, or even penalizing. The Winter Blast Plasmid is great because is allows you to shatter your frozen foe. However, you do lose the chance to scavenge more items from the corpse, and that's a penalty that makes that potentially entertaining game mechanic unattractive. I found the rest of the plasmids range from somewhat amusing to utterly useless.

More Plasmids and other gene-boosting tonics can be purchased at Gatherer’s Garden vending machines at the cost of some ADAM. This substance is as overly abundant as ammo and cash, which is a shame because it really takes away the sense of dread that you may run out in the midst of a dangerous fight. You’ll have to try very hard to not wind up at the end of the game with every available tonic and plasmid slot enabled, complete with your pick of virtually any power you wish. Again, there seems to be a design decision made that being able to buy almost everything the game has to offer is superior to making you choose which path to take. While that’s very friendly to the casual player, I’d argue that it removes some of the incentive and ability to choose a unique path. You’re rewarded with more ADAM for "harvesting" Little Sisters than releasing them. However, the difference in the amount is not that great, given ADAMs abundance, and you'll often get otherwise unobtainable bonuses for releasing them, making the pathway of choice quite clear.

As you creep through the businesses, common areas, and dwellings of Rapture, you’ll inevitably encounter the automated defenses: camera-activated flying bots and machine gun, rocket, and flame-throwing turrets. All of these can be hacked via an entertaining mini-game. Or if you’ve got the cash you can purchase a hack-tool or bribe the machine (capitalism rules in Rapture!). It’s great fun to turn the tools of the enemy upon themselves and you can create quite an effective defense zone. Respawning won’t cost you a dime or time. If you die, you’ll find yourself in the nearest activated Vita-Chamber where you can begin again with your inventory intact. Unfortunately, the excessive number of defense zones and the no-penalty respawns eliminate a lot of the feeling of danger and challenge of the game.

One gimmick that seems a bit out of place, but does provide a terrific risk/reward is the Camera. You’ll earn one of these a few levels in and it will allow you to research your enemy to get bonuses against them. The trade-off is that you must put yourself in harm’s way to get a good shot. You get extra credit for taking action shots of multiple foes, and close-up centered shots are preferred.

The interface is lovingly rendered in Art Deco detail and is quite friendly for the PC user. Virtually every detail you might wish to see (or not) can be found at the touch of the M key: a detailed map, hints, a replay of audio diaries, and even general game help. The map shows every corner of explorable territory in the game, which removes some of the sense of surprise and makes finding hidden areas painfully easy. Another annoyance is the inability to view your inventory. You’ll scavenge corpses for junk like a ferret and often forget what you’ve got until you approach a useable object, whereupon you’ll be prompted to press a specified key. While you aren’t forced to pick up every item you come in contact with, you’ll be forced to eat or drink anything you pick up – no chance to save them for later. You are able to view your “junk” inventory on the U-Invent machine but inexplicably are not allowed to see how many of the item to be created you already have, which forces you to flip back and forth between disconnected screens. For the mentally challenged, they've kindly provided an omniscient arrow floating in view to point you towards your goal and every interactive or collectable object shimmers. Fortunately, either of those last two can be turned off in-menu as needed. Even though some of these decisions were likely made to remove “needless” tasks from the player’s hands, I believe they went too far with some, while others were just not well thought-out.

Typically, doing the “right thing” in a story comes at a cost to the character. Not so in BioShock. By making the morally “good” choice in the game, you’re rewarded with gifts, nearly as much ADAM, and the good feeling that you’ve helped the child-like Little Sisters. There’s little incentive to follow the dark side, except for the opportunity to view additional endings. There should be a better in-game reward for harvesting the Little Sisters. After such a heinous act, an additional small amount of an already overabundant resource is simply not enough.

If it sounds as if I’m dwelling heavily on the negative aspects of the game, it’s simply because it is maddeningly close to the status of instant-classic. The bottom line is that BioShock is a first-person-shooter with a cool but shallow and mostly linear story. You’re perfectly free to blaze through the story, bypassing all but the most necessary parts, absorbing only the parts of the story that are forced upon you. Or, you can take your time, savoring the experience and gleaning every detail offered. There are significant flaws in weapon and Plasmid balance, but it remains enjoyable for those who don’t mind putting in some effort. Every game-play convenience is offered to the player, though stripped away are some of the expected complexities that create depth. Fortunately, it all takes place in a wonderfully unique and intriguing world and, as such, is a game that most will find quite enjoyable on some level.

  • Visual - (9.5) - Simply beautiful. Marred only by the occasional glitch.
  • Audio - (9.5) - A near perfect compliment to the visual appeal of Rapture.
  • Gameplay - (8) - A thoroughly enjoyable romp, hampered by some balance issues.
  • Value - (7) - No multiplayer and too few meaningful choices. Decent length.
  • Bias - (10) - I love this place!

Next Page: Second Opinion & Tons of Screenshots!