BioShock Xbox 360 Review
After a few years of anticipation, Irrational Games and 2K Studios (who, brought under the wing of publisher 2K have been renamed to 2K Boston and 2K Australia) have finally released BioShock. In the first of many major game releases slated to hit in the last half of 2007, this year's extended holiday season for gaming has start off with a bang: BioShock is an incredible experience that challenges any notion that games are somehow not art.
It's 1960, almost fifteen years after the underwater city Rapture was built by the radical laissez-faire tycoon Andrew Ryan. He got sick of the many economic and social doctrines in post-World War II society, so he created his own little world at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Rapture was designed to be mostly self-sufficient, where food, drinking water, electricity, and oxygen are all manufactured in-house, and no regulation of economy or other areas of society is allowed. It's a place where artists won't be censored and science can progress without any worry about right or wrong, and without laws invented to hinder it. If the critical thinking sections of your mind start coming to the conclusion that a place like this don't work, you're probably right, and the guys at Irrational seemed to think so as well. After only fifteen years, this massive project has devolved into a place of brutal horrors and true chaos, as the people and machines trapped inside are slowly wiping each other out in search of new genetic "drugs" that their mutated bodies require in order to live.
Even the name of the city itself - Rapture - is a bit of sarcasm from the developers, poking fun at Ryan's supposedly wondrous achievement. This game evokes this kind of thought, with references to the Bible and commentary on how a uniquely lawless system like in Rapture could turn into utter anarchy. That's far more than we can expect out of most first person shooters.
The player's own arrival at Rapture is a pretty unique one which I won't spoil for you (although you can experience it by grabbing the BioShock demo on the Xbox Live Marketplace), but soon you get mixed up in the world of Plasmids, Tonics, and ADAM. I'll try and stay vague about these in order to keep a few surprises left in the story and the gameplay, but the first thing you'll notice in Rapture is not the gameplay: it's the environment. This is a masterfully-created underwater dystopia with grand Art Deco architecture (a style that is rarely seen in video games) and plenty of both neutral and hostile inhabitants that you can deal with usually in a few ways. Granted, most will come at you yelling and screaming various insane things trying to kill you, just like in most games, but you'll have more tricks up your sleeve than just conventional weapons.
The question is one of whether the choices really add up to much while you're playing. BioShock does include two ways to treat the the game's more interesting characters, the Little Sisters, although you'll find that there's only one way to get to them: by taking out their protectors, the Big Daddies, monstrous mechanical things in those old 1940s diver suits with guns, mining drills on their arms, and grenades at their disposal.
The choices you make with Little Sisters don't really matter much, and it's in the choices in customizing your character where you make any real difference in how you interact with Rapture and face its psychopathic denizens. While this is primarily a first person shooter with magic-like Plasmid attacks, there are plenty of perks you pick up in the way of Tonics. The Tonics grant certain combat and non-combat benefits, but you can only equip a certain number at once. As you progress you can choose to spend your hard-earned points to buy more slots to stuff Tonics into, which usually a good idea, and can buy improved versions of Plasmids for more powerful attacks.
While one could try and do some kind of character "build" that focuses solely on Plasmids or on conventional weaponry, I think you'll find that for at least the first half of the game you'll get the most out of it by doing a bit of both - but you can change your build by swapping out your Tonics at any Gene Bank station placed throughout Rapture. Weapons themselves can be upgraded with interesting new stuff (including a hilarious capacity-adding mod for a revolver that looks like a motor with a small ammo belt, giving your old-fashioned revolver 24 rounds to fire instead of six) or just more damage. Plasmids can be upgraded but also improved further with specific tonics you can swap in and out - while this definitely adds depth, it doesn't make the game so complex or tactical that casual players get overwhelmed with choices right at the beginning.
And that's important, because while BioShock does have a system that allows you to respawn as many times as you want when you die (often eliminating the need to load and save constantly, although you can do so at any point during the game if you want), it's still not really easy. Going up against a Big Daddy is going to require you to have armor-piecing ammo or specialized Plasmid abilities if you want to come out alive, although most of the Splicers - regular humans who have become mutated and grotesque from too many years of dosing themselves with gene-altering drugs - go down easily enough with some well-placed bullets or wrench swings. You'll find overall that ammo is scarce in Rapture, but there are plenty of ways to kill enemies without firing guns at them. Figuring out these ways is usually pretty rewarding.
Throughout Rapture the player will find these old-fashioned tape machines where the inhabitants of the city, some being long dead and some still around, have recorded their thoughts in an audio diary style. This is where much of the lore and story come in, and while you can skip them entirely, you'll miss the full picture of just how an underwater city turned into a twisted dungeon of depravity in less than fifteen years.
We've seen action games include a camera for the player to carry around more than a couple of times, and just like those games, in BioShock the player uses the research camera to take pictures of enemies. Here, the game goes beyond just some goofy unlockable stuff in the main menu, though. There are three levels of research that can be done on any particular enemy type, and each level bestows an increasing, passive damage bonus on that type of enemy. You can also gain new Tonics and Plasmid-related stuff by getting to higher research levels as well. Considering how easy it is to switch weapons (just hold the right bumper for a split second and a menu pops up, temporarily pausing the game while you choose your weapon), it's really not much of a pain to photograph an enemy and then swap back to take it out.
BioShock comes to the Xbox 360 via the highly capable Unreal Engine 3, which powered Gears of War. Here, though, the developers have focused less on huge scale and gone smaller, giving us a hugely detailed world with more simultaneous special effects than pretty much any game I've ever seen. And in what seems to be a nod to PC gamers, the 360 version even has an option to disable V-Sync (known in-game as Unlock Frame Rate) which introduces "tearing" but also nearly doubles frame rates in many places. And with the frame rate unlocked, you'll find that Rapture moves at a silky-smooth pace, even as you take on a half-dozen splicers at once with a Big Daddy fighting on your side in the same room.
The whole presentation of this game is probably its strongest attribute. From the 40s-sounding radio communications to Pipboy references, Art Deco everywhere to crazy sci-fi and horror elements, the guys at 2K Boston/Australia have created one of the most cohesive yet original worlds ever explored with a joystick, gamepad, keyboard, or mouse. The story that's generated isn't forced down your throat with long, drawn out cutscenes, and is instead left as an optional thing in the form of the voice recordings. Many of the best elements of the developers' last first person game, System Shock 2, have been kept alive here. Some will say that this is the spiritual successor, but I would disagree. This game is just too different from anything else, and it really only puts the best gameplay elements from System Shock 2 to use in Rapture.
There are a couple of downsides to BioShock, but they're pretty minimal. One is that the mini-game for "hacking", 1950s-style, gets tiresome after dozens of attempts. The developers might have done well to mix it up with different mini-games when you hack different things. The other issue is that there's no multiplayer, but at the same time I doubt the somewhat popular belief that a game is always better with multiplayer than without. BioShock might actually be less liked if it shipped with sub-par multiplayer, and while the action does seem like it'd lend itself well to online play - either through competitive or cooperative modes - we do have to remember that this is a brand new franchise, something we don't see too often, so it was more important for the creators to make a damn solid game doing what they know best. An over-extension of their talents might have turned out worse.
And just because BioShock doesn't include any form of multiplayer, it doesn't mean this one isn't worth going through a couple of times. There are some scripted sequences here, but most of the player's encounters with the enemy are the result of random interactions. Big Daddies and Little Sisters roam throughout levels independently for the most part, while Splicers will wind up fighting each other, as well as Rapture's security systems, as often as they fight you. We're not talking about having some kind of super-complex society here, but it does mean at the very least that even if you don't change difficulty levels (there are three in total), you're going to get at least a subtly different experience every time.
Some will complain that it's not open enough, that you can't travel anywhere in Rapture at once and "do anything you like". But that phrase, to "do anything you like" in the context of a video game, is always a letdown to some extent or another. This is one place where I've got to take a stand and say that if BioShock were more like that, the game would have been entirely different, not nearly as engrossing as it is, and wouldn't have had the kind of unique narrative that we are getting. You do often retrace your steps throughout any given level, but I never found that the backtracking done was in any way boring or tedious.
BioShock is one of those games that goes down in history as a shining example for other developers to learn from. The massive amount of effort that's gone into creating great architecture and environment goes beyond what many game developers are even remotely capable of, and while I'm not trying to trash other successful shooter franchises, the RPG elements in BioShock give the action a level of depth you simply can't get in games like the Halo series or Gears of War. Attention-deficit gamers might not find this one to be so great, but in my opinion this is not the fault of the developers. BioShock is a well-rounded single player experience with excellent action, a compelling story, some excellent horror moments, and stunning visuals.