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BioShock

BioShock image

Platform: Xbox 360
Release Date: August 21, 2007 (N.A.)
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Irrational Games
ESRB: Mature
Genre: First Person Shooter/RPG
Multiplayer: single-player only
Format: DVD release ($69.99 CAD)
Notes: none
Official website

When I play BioShock, I have a recurring thought, and that is: what thought process gave birth to the idea of a Little Zombie Girl being protected by a Giant Old Timey Diving Suit Monster?

That is the heart of the much-anticipated Xbox 360 title from Irrational Games (who were absorbed into the 2K Games collective hours before the BioShock launch, where no one can hear them scream). That image, the Big Daddy and the Little Sister, has already entered the collective consciousness of video game iconography.

The story details and execution are what keep BioShock apart from Every Other Shooter. Because the gods know, there are a lot of them out there right now. As of this writing, BioShock sits on the shelf next to Halo 3, Valve’s Orange Box, and around a half-dozen other high profile Xbox 360 shooters. Just first-person shooters. What makes this title a contender for Game of the Year awards? Why does this one, and not something like Area 51: BlackSite or TimeShift, get all the attention?

Three things: it’s extremely well-executed, it has fun core gameplay, and it’s deeply weird.

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What Irrational has created is nothing particularly groundbreaking in the genre – it is the allure of the setting that sells a game like this, the atmosphere that differentiates it. BioShock has more atmosphere than anything you’ve played this year, sometimes almost to a fault.

Let’s start with the stage. This may contain spoiler details, depending on your disposition. (Game background, but nothing plot-destroying.) I encourage the reader to take a moment and get comfortable, adjust your frame of mind, maybe take a sip from a nearby beverage if such a thing is handy. Good? Alright.

During the 1950s an eccentric tycoon named Andrew Ryan set out to create a rogue city-state that adhered strictly to Objectivist principles by constructing a massive Art Deco-infused underwater Atlantean urban environment named (somewhat trollishly) Rapture. After building the aforementioned city, which surely would have been the most stupendous architectural and engineering feat ever accomplished by the hand of man were it remotely plausible, and presumably populating said city with at least a few hundred extremely dedicated yet staunchly Objectivist citizens who agreed to forgo proper sunlight and all social bonds to dwell in a miraculous undersea Gotham, they discover these sea slugs that dwell deep in the ocean. The slugs generate large amounts of a raw genetic material called ADAM that enables all kinds of magical transformative superhero-type powers to be conferred on it’s imbiber, but the slugs are parasitic in nature, so naturally they (the Objectivists) do the logical thing and embed the slugs within the stomach lining of a bunch of little girls, which turns them into semi-creepy zombies. They also genetically engineer the diving-suit-wearing Big Daddies to protect these Little Sisters from anyone who would do them harm. Meanwhile Ryan Industries and upstart competitor Fontaine Futuristics are openly selling mutant powers to the populace with no medical testing, because they are Objectivists after all and this is how they roll. Predictably, all of Rapture goes to hell. Ryan cracks down hard on the now-insane genetically modified citizenry who then run amok using their newfound powers.

With me so far? You’ve got: underwater, art deco, 60s, pseudo-steampunk gothic horror with overtones of genetic manipulation. And spells. Which you kill little girls to get.

BioShock image

Enter You, “Jack”, with no past and no setup and no reflection. Your plane crash-lands in the middle of a flight from Somewhere to Somewhere Else, miraculously you survive, and swim to the nearest lighthouse which serves as an entry point to Rapture. Once down there you get to avail yourself of various quaintly styled firearms, as well as the plasmids which give you the mutant powers. When you first arrive, you find a radio which has a sort of narrator character named, yep, Atlas, who guides you from goal to goal. A lot of this consists of fighting or dodging splicers, which are the fucked-up remaining denizens of Rapture, presumably driven mad by… consumption. Of ADAM. This bit is sort of hazy but suffice it to say, the place is full of crazy fast zombies who spout all sorts of biblical/nonsensical drivel and occasionally do things beyond the laws of physics.

As do you, so it’s not an unfair situation.

The plasmids are interchangeable with cybernatic upgrades or spells or powers or any other label you care to use. Examples include: throwing flame, throwing ice, throwing lightning, throwing furniture (telekinesis). These get more exotic as you move through the game, branching into security-hacking abilities, invisibility, and mood alteration. Much of BioShock’s combat is arranged as a series of semi-freeflowing situational encounters that you are supposed to exploit using appropriate combinations of plasmids and weapons. At its shallowest level, this would be things like using electrical bolts on enemies standing in water, or flame on a group of oil barrels. The later plasmids confer the ability to enrage splicers, which makes them attack other splicers, or hypnotize Big Daddies to fight for you. Using these tricks is key to surviving some of the later fights in the game where you are required to deal with waves of bad guys.

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Also scattered throughout the game are various semi-intelligent mechanical things such as alarm cameras, flying security robots and stationary gun turrets. The design sensibility shines here: for instance, the turrets being office swivel-chairs jury-rigged with a machine gun. These bots give the impression of having been thrown together quickly and placed haphazardly around Rapture, either in an attempt by the population to resist Ryan’s iron control or by Ryan himself to quell unrest and guard sections of the city. The bots can be hacked, so that they fight for you rather than against you. A quick lightning bolt stuns anything mechanical and provides the player with an opening to get up close and rewire the thing. The hacking itself is done via a minigame interface that is basically a clone of Pipe Dream.

Meanwhile each level has a certain number of randomly roaming pairs of Big Daddies and Little Sisters, which you must figure out how to deal with if you want to keep expanding your plasmid powers (the game issues a stern warning if you try to leave the level without doing so). The choice: use a remedy on the Sister to “cure” her of the slug parasite for a certain amount of ADAM, or harvest the slug directly, which kills the girl but imparts double the ADAM to you.

This is an interesting setup, but one that I found to be a little toothless in the end. There are endless pages of discussion online regarding the relative differences between harvesting and rescuing the Little Sisters. And in the end, they are slight. ADAM not recovered from rescuing is gifted to you later on by the Little Sisters anyways. Also, Irrational totally wussed out on the harvesting cutscene; just a green mist and then you’ve got a slug in your hand. (I mean, really, if you’re going to put the choice in the game, don’t sterilize it that way. The game’s already rated M.)

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You’ll also pick up tape recorders, which are lying all over the place. Raptur…ians (?) were very big on voice dictation so these provide a handy way of dealing with background and plot exposition while the player is free to keep moving and exploring. They’re like mini-podcasts within the game, and most of them are optional, but they are also the primary way of finding out what the hell has happened, in terms of story history. This includes your own opaque background and character development, which is limited to groans when being hurt and a pair of chain tattoos on your wrists otherwise.

While BioShock is often billed as a “shooter/RPG”, the “RPG” portion of that label is definitely the lesser one. The plasmids are upgradeable of course, and you are also afforded permanent stat bonuses in the form of tonics. Both plasmids and tonics go into limited slots divided into categories like technical, combat, athletics, etc. These form the core of the RPG elements. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it that, and the reason for this is the lack of real dialogue and NPCs. There are probably hundreds of hours of voice recordings in the game, from the tapes to the extremely chatty splicers, and all of it is well-acted and produced, a rare thing in videogames. Sometimes you’ll get to have a conversation with a pane of glass between you and another character who isn’t an insane bloodthirsty freak (there are a scant few), but that’s about it. The developers have taken the ’silent protagonist’ approach. While I understand the immersive reasons for doing so, it does leave the player with the feeling that they are being talked at more than anything else.

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Technically the game is quite solid, showing off some rather spectacular water effects (you can tell they had a whole team just for that) and really beautiful lighting. This is an Unreal Engine 3 game so it makes good use of the additional physics and other tricks that engine provides – unfortunately, it also inherits some of its defects. Corpses had a completely unnerving (and oddly appropriate) twitch to them that was so pronounced, I thought it must be intentional at first. Then I noticed that most of the splicers I killed would have an arm or a foot that endlessly rocked back and forth after collapsing. For the most part, it looks really great, but this fact owes more to the accomplished art direction and skill of implementation than any fabulous new 3D technique.

The style and design are the real showpiece. Occasionally I found find myself scrutinizing the environment, checking out the wealth of set dressing on offer. Bloody protest signs litter the hallways near the exit bathysphere. Lights pop and crackle, video screens dance and occasionally channel Ryan’s paranoid rantings. Chunks of plane debris from the crash collide with the city. Water drips and pours and pools everywhere. It feels like a horror film ride at certain moments, in a manner strongly reminiscent of Half Life.

The ending, not to get into details, was a bit of a letdown, and felt quite rushed. The hype about moral choices was overblown; the harvesting/rescuing choice is not an insignificant detail but really only provides a shallow illusion of choice between the two possible endings in the game, “good” and “bad”. Also I was a bit disappointed to find that you never actually exit Rapture and go into the open ocean at any point.

Despite the plot holes and weirdly contrived structure, BioShock is a very good game because it nails the combat and situational mechanics, and provides some truly vivid and haunting imagery as a backdrop while the mayhem unfolds. There hasn’t been a better game on any console this year for playing after dark with the lights out.

(Some context: this is a game that I am coming late to, having now received my 360 back from its resuscitation vacation. The new unit is an imposter; I studied the markings on the back of the device upon removing it from its sad little cardboard coffin, and noticed that the birthday had changed. Whatever. I know its not considered polite to say so these days, but all these damn 360s look the same to me. As long as it works. Which it does.)

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