"There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it." -Alfred Hitchcock
HIGH Wonderful art style & environment.
LOW Game feels too easy at points.
WTF I didn't realize so many people in the 50s kept audio diaries and left them laying around in random boxes, air vents, and dead bodies.
Alfred Hitchcock once said, "There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it." I've always enjoyed the sensation of my heart beating a little faster more than having the daylights scared out of me. As a player, I become much more engaged by a crescendo of tension rather than a sudden "HOLY CRAP" moment, although those can also be enjoyable. However, suspense is a difficult thing to effectively portray in any medium, sitting on a fine line between outright boredom and "OH SHI-." Walking that line is a difficult task, but fortunately for us BioShock handles it quite deftly. Is it gaming perfection? No. Is it a thoroughly enjoyable experience? Absolutely.
The aesthetics of BioShock are nothing short of superb. The player is thrown into the world of Rapture, a massive undersea city that has been ruined by unchecked genetic modification and greed. Rapture is a truly terrible place; most of its citizens have succumbed to raving mania, and the ones that haven't are locked in a deadly power struggle (insert mandatory joke about the U.S. Congress here). From the moment I set foot in Rapture everything around me was screaming "dystopia"—not literally of course, but there are quite a few screams to be heard. The dimly lit and decrepit port where I entered the city was complete with crumbling pillars, burning chunks of the floor, and a few crazies walking around. This is just a taste of the visual treat that is BioShock—the surgical wing, the night club, and the creepiest farmer's market ever all awaited me. The Sixth Sense-esque "ghost" sequences are another great part of Rapture's décor, showing a few backstory elements through spectral visages triggered by going through a specific area. The only downside is that there aren't enough of them. I really wish these had been used more in addition to the audio diaries, as they were great for setting an area's mood. The soundscapes also do an excellent job of capturing the essence of anarchy in Rapture, from the frantic ramblings of the remaining citizens to the heavy groans of the Big Daddies (the big mechanical creatures on the box cover) to the faint sounds of the city walls succumbing to the water pressure. The sights and sounds of the game make Rapture a masterfully steampunkified setting for the game's narrative.
I usually find that the best game stories are those that will constantly prod the player, compelling him to continue onward in a game he otherwise would have no interest in. The excellent writing of BioShock accomplishes this task with flying colors, as the game leans on its story to keep the player engaged from start to finish. There was never any point that I became disinterested or bored, as plot points developed at frequent enough intervals to keep me intrigued. Plot and character development is accomplished in large part through a series of audio diaries the player finds in seemingly random places, along with radio messages and the ghost encounters mentioned earlier. I actually found myself looking forward to receiving new diaries/messages, even stopping to listen to them in some instances. Another interesting aspect is that with all the diaries and radio messages there was very little face-to-face interaction with non-player characters, but this did not hamper things in the slightest, as I sympathized with the characters I was supposed to sympathize with, loathed the ones I was supposed to loathe, and was able to follow every plot detail. To discuss any specifics would be an injustice, so I'll just say that the BioShock story is extremely good, and a treat (or an insult depending on how you think it was interpreted) for any Ayn Rand fans that might happen to come across it.
Combat is nothing extraordinary but mostly enjoyable nonetheless. Along with the garden variety guns to choose from, there are also the plasmids (spells) which give a little variety to taking down opponents. As I progressed further into the game I found myself enjoying the plasmids more and more—things like setting fire to an enemy and watching him run right into another group of bad guys standing on an oil slick (along with the ensuing 15 seconds of roasted hijinks), or hypnotizing a Big Daddy and watching him wreak havoc on my behalf were immensely satisfying. There are however a few combat-related drawbacks, mostly pertaining to the use of the plasmids. It was frustrating when after receiving a new plasmid I was forced to choose between the new acquisition and the ones I already had since I did not have enough plasmid slots; then I had to find a Gene Bank in order to switch out plasmids. It was even more annoying when after choosing to dispense with, say, the fire attack I came upon three enemies standing on an oil slick just begging to be ignited. It is truly a cruel game that forces one to choose between setting people on fire or unleashing a horde of killer bees in their general direction.
The sheer torture of being forced to pick between burning things or freezing them and shattering them with my wrench is the only manner in which BioShock can be called cruel. The game is a breeze for the most part, not because the enemies are push-overs but because there is almost no penalty for dying. Each time I died I was instantly revived at a Vita-Chamber (respawn point), with near full health and a moderate amount of Eve (magic). There are Vita-Chambers in every area of Rapture, ensuring that death never took me to far from my objective. I'm aware that a lot of games use checkpoint systems to ensure that although the game is kept from being overly frustrating, the player must pass through specific events in one life in order to proceed. BioShock however goes to the extreme, in that all the progress one makes or damage one inflicts in one life is carried over into the next one, turning the player into a Gauntlet-style supermonster whose house can't be destroyed (+10 bonus points to those of you who get that reference without having to click on the link). This issue really came into play with the first Big Daddy I was forced to fight, as I would take a few shots at it, get eviscerated, then respawn at the nearest Vita-Chamber while said Big Daddy was still clomping around smoking from being set on fire, apparently oblivious to the little man who kept coming back to brighten up his day.
The most bothersome occurrence is the hacking that takes place (what seems like) every five minutes or so. Things like sentry turrets or security drones can be tinkered with to attack enemies instead of the player, and vending machines can be persuaded to give discounts. Hacking events occur a lot, especially with vending machines. Having to interrupt the action and play a variation of Pipe Dream every time I hack something gets really annoying after the first 500 times or so. Cutting out the vending machine hacks would have really helped here, as I don't think the game would have suffered had I not been forced to reroute the flow of water through the device (which kindly waits for me to show up before starting the water) in order to save $5 on a first aid kit.
While it has some minor flaws here and there, BioShock's biggest selling point is style, and it does not disappoint. Revolutionary? No. Solid title that was worth my time? You bet. Using sentence fragments to illustrate a contrast between viewpoints? Oh hell yes.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via Steam download and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 15 hours of play was devoted to completing the game once.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence. There is a lot here that I wouldn't want to expose a child to, especially the more startling moments. I could easily see a 6-year-old getting nightmares from a game like this.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: All of the game's dialog is subtitled and most of it can be reviewed at leisure, but ambient sounds and music do play a large role in the overall experience.