Last year at E3 2006, BioShock was one of three games I told everyone they had to see. “If you have any chance at all, go see BioShock,” I insisted. The gameplay, graphics and concept were just that good. Having now played BioShock for a week, I’d still recommend BioShock to any gamer who owns an Xbox 360 or PC, but for different reasons. The game is still solid, don’t get me wrong, and it earns every one of the nine points we’re awarding it. But where the gameplay can grow repetitive and linear, the moral decisions and high-level concept more than make BioShock an incredible experience.
BioShock’s story follows a man whose plane crash-lands in the ocean, leaving him stuck near a lighthouse that leads to an underwater utopia called Rapture. In this 1950s “alternate universe,” Rapture’s residents sought to create the perfect society and populace, but as such experiments are wont to do, things went horribly wrong and left the residents in a zombie-like state looking for their next fix of a “perfection drug” called Adam. The game then unfolds as the main character learns what went wrong at Rapture, finds a way to return to sea level and ultimately decides whether he, too, wants to pursue perfection like the residents-turned-splicers he faces throughout the game.
BioShock is part first-person shooter, with machine guns, pistols, grenade launchers and shotguns. It’s also part role-playing game, as players determine which plasmids (think of them as magical upgrades) to inject that enable them to do such things as shoot electricity from their hands, use telekinesis to throw objects through the air or set tornado traps for the five types of splicers that want nothing more than to kill the player and steal his Adam.
It’s this Adam/plasmid concept that really makes BioShock stand out from the pack, but more for its choices than its actual gameplay ramifications. To use a plasmid, players must have a sufficient amount of Eve (i.e. mana), which is gained through injectable vials. To unlock new plasmids, players must have a certain amount of Adam (i.e. magical currency), which is gained by either harvesting a “Little Sister” for the maximum amount of Adam or saving the little girl’s life but receiving a slightly lower amount. Save the girls and you’ll be rewarded in the end. Harvest them, and you’ll have a different experience but more butt-kicking plasmid potential.
In essence, BioShock poses an important moral question: will you pursue perfection (plasmids) like the ill-fated residents of Rapture, or will you stay on a moral high ground with the Little Sisters and have a more difficult combat experience because of it? The developers knew precisely what they were doing, too, from the obvious names of Adam and Eve all the way to the Bibles and religious references scattered throughout the game and its levels.
This thought-provoking question — which has definite gameplay consequences — is really what makes BioShock shine, especially as good videogame narratives have become an unfortunate rarity. However, the impeccable story and overall atmosphere also underscore the game’s flaws, namely its enemy and gameplay repetition.
The splicers, which are BioShock’s main enemy, come in just five varieties, and they appear the same throughout the game and generally don’t change their tactics. They do become more challenging as the game progresses, but that challenge can be reduced somewhat by taking pictures of each type of splicer to gain a damage bonus. Technically the gameplay stays fresh because of the sheer number of plasmids, but then again, when you find a combination of plasmid/gun attacks that works, it’s difficult to stray from that comfort zone, rendering the gameplay “rinse and repeat” at times.
Fortunately, while you’re rinsing and repeating you’ll be totally immersed in the atmosphere of Rapture. From the outstanding environmental audio to the AI that actually behaves naturally, BioShock really sounds, looks and feels like a once-thriving utopia. For instance, nothing prepared me for the first time I saw a Big Daddy (the guardians of the Little Sisters) woefully continue pounding on a Little Sister’s hideout to get her attention, even after she had already been harvested. Never before had I sensed such emotion in a character — and it wasn’t even the character I was supposed to be playing.
This emotional connection and the moral conundrums are really what BioShock was designed to inspire, and it does so without a hitch. The occasionally repetitive gameplay and level linearity, while somewhat disappointing, are merely speed bumps in the game’s race to gaming stardom. The core game feels similar to games we’ve all played before — Deus Ex, Doom and others — but the experience of BioShock is entirely unique. And the overall quality of that experience is why I still find myself recommending that people see BioShock if they get the chance, 15 months after that first E3 demo.
– Jonas Allen