Developer: 2K Boston (Irrational Games)
Platform: Xbox 360, PC
Reviewed on Xbox 360
BioShock paints the portrait of an underwater utopia – a city beneath the waves, constructed by a Russian industrialist in 1946 to serve as a haven for other brilliant industrialists, as well as artists and scientists. The city of Rapture, accessible only through bathyspheres anchored in a remote tower in the middle of the North Atlantic, was designed as a place where the free market could flourish and all its brilliant inhabitants could live in decadent harmony. Certainly, there were perils: leaks of cold seawater could be deadly, oxygen was a precious commodity and the entire community needed to be kept secret from the world above. But for a time, Rapture prospered.
Rapture prospered so well that its residents uncovered marvels of science unparalleled in the surface world. With a firm grasp of genetics, Rapture's fisheries were precious, not as much as a source of food, but because of the treasure trove of genotypes represented by the undersea web. With one fortuitous discovery, the people of Rapture uncovered mysteries of genetics that could allow people to be reformed. The crippled were healed. Race and gender became irrelevant because they could be changed. Unique powers were unlocked, coded genetically and inserted into the human genome.
But playing fast and loose with deoxyribonucleic acid isn't without risk. As the residents of Rapture learned, such changes can cause physical and mental instability. So when the player's plane crashes from the sky, it's perhaps calamitous that the wreck landed near the entrance to Rapture. The city is now something more dystopian than its original design. You're thrown into a genetic civil war that has devastated Rapture – and that will also test the mettle of your personality.
I'm not going to say that BioShock is "a good game," let alone "one of the greatest games of all time." BioShock is the greatest game of all time. Or more accurately, I should say that BioShock is my favorite game of all time. No game is perfect, but BioShock comes as close to being a paragon of game design as any game could.
We all have our favorite genres and bizarre conventions, but here's why this game shoves its way to the top for me: BioShock puts the player at the helm of a rich story, set in a world that is as deep as you want it to be. You can play through the game and pay little attention to the details, but just as it should in life, everything has an explanation, and it's all there for you to find. Oh, and I've always been a big fan of art deco architecture, so the mind-blowing art wins extra points for style.
BioShock does so much right, but the true glory of the game is its writing. There is always an urgent challenge, something immediate to accomplish that makes you want to keep playing. Of course, surmount that challenge, and there's something even more important to take care of immediately. Certainly to take care of before you stop playing. Hours later, it's time to eat... or sleep... but there's just one more thing to do. But the writing works on so many levels. It's not just the task at hand or even the believable dialog that carries you through. The overarching plot, that reveals the demise of a rationalist's paradise at the hands of our own base instincts, is as thought-provoking as it is fascinating.
The game's story achieves some of the most difficult writing tricks around – so many elements of the story are foreshadowed so brilliantly that I missed a slew of clever hints, only to be smacked in the face by certain plot developments. In a world gone insane, the writing manages to capture the rationality behind irrational minds, explaining the horrific acts committed by everyone in Rapture, from surgeons to artists to a shoe saleswoman just believably enough to be even more horrifying. And the world is filled with the tiny details that make it seem like a real place beneath the churning water of the North Atlantic. Some diaries uncover the secret moments in ordinary lives just as others reveal the keystone events in a civil war powered by genetic change.
The writing is certainly not all that creates this eerily believable paradise demolished. The artists have crafted a world that is gorgeous both in its architectural glory and in its decay, as it unravels underwater. The architecture and decorations, inspired by Rockefeller Center in New York City, exemplify the thinking man's paradise that glorifies the fruits of science, technology and art that created Rapture. The buckled doors, ever-present algae and smoldering shops are a testament to the decaying town. The makeshift barriers, sprawled corpses and slicks of blood show the brutality of the conflict that still smolders after burning brightly enough to wipe out most of Rapture.
Together, the visuals and the script combine to follow that most fundamental of rules: "Show, don't tell." Most games still rely on telling you how powerful the events were that preceded your arrival. BioShock shows you. The young woman on the operating table whose face has been rearranged by a deranged plastic surgeon is better testament to his madness than any newsflash, and when combined with that same surgeon gloating victoriously about his breakthroughs in medicine, it's all the more horrifying. The three little girls, slumped, dead, against one another on a couch as they watched television, speak more to the sudden change that overcame Rapture than any dissertation. Simply, the art and language perfectly complement one another.
Scripted moments add to a nearly perfect use of shadow and darkness, providing cinematography that just highlights the demented menace of Rapture's inhabitants. Bright shadows often presage the horrific acts that lie just around the corner, or provide a warning concerning a splicer that scuttles away to set an ambush as you approach.
Even the level design builds on the overall concept to create enough segments of Rapture that it's believable as an underwater home for thousands of people. There are colossal apartments for the wealthy, dormitories for the poor, markets, malls, theaters and restaurants. A power plant draws energy from a volcanic vent, and trees in individual glass domes provide oxygen for the entire city, linked by a metro comprised of bathyspheres doing their regular rounds. You may only see a fragment of the city, but there are so many living, working and recreational areas that bicycles and trams are required to travel the vast reaches of Rapture.
BioShock owes nearly every basic mechanic to System Shock 2. When that game was released in the last millennium, it already had nearly everything right. Certainly, graphics have improved dramatically, but many of the basic elements of play are similar. There is a selection of diverse, upgradable weapons. Psi powers are now plasmids, and while the powers are better organized, more interesting and varied, the fundamental play is the same, right down to items hidden in far off locations, accessible only by telekinesis. Most of the story and character interaction comes through logs and radio messages, a perfect way of providing character interactions without either ruining the plot or removing player agency. There are hackable vending machines ("Welcome to the Circus of Values!"), research and ghosts. Certain organs can even be harvested to provide first aid. But best of all, BioShock maintains the same mix of story-driven first-person shooter, role-playing game and adventure game-style puzzles that made System Shock 2 so amazing.
A few of these systems have been tweaked. Instead of collecting scattered supplies, research just involves taking pictures with a special camera. And I love that while the camera takes inspiration from other, recent games, the camera even has auto-focus and focal depth that make it feel even more realistic.
Everything has a bit more style and a clearer explanation. Hacking involves playing the classic game Pipes, directing fluid through a maze. But thanks to the hydraulic technology, freezing the machine you are about to hack buys you more time before the fluid flows. Ghosts aren't just psychic impressions – there's so much genetic sampling and exchange going on that memories are sometimes passed on through cellular exchange. You make all sorts of role-playing game style decisions concerning which skills transform you (in the form of splicing plasmids and gene tonics), but those choices are reversible. New plasmids and tonics simply go into your "gene bank," allowing you to use whichever are most convenient at any given time.
The game has a "save anywhere" feature, something most Xbox 360 titles still haven't managed, and then creates a game that doesn't really need one. Like the cyborg conversion chambers from the original System Shock, BioShock is filled with Vita-Chambers that will restore your life should you fall. And unlike most games with continue points, Vita-Chambers are common enough that I never felt like heading to the reload part of the menu. They provide all the excitement and suspense that surround the risk of death, but don't artificially attempt to lengthen the game with a death penalty. Bioshock is a long game, and it's all content. Those hours aren't spent replaying segments that preceded a death.
The difficulty levels are perfect. Easy allows even novices to play, explore Rapture and unravel the story with little risk. Hard requires careful play and a cautious approach to every district of Rapture. The game's end boss even avoids the pitfalls of most bosses, giving clear feedback as to your progress in the ultimate showdown.
BioShock did learn a few lessons from System Shock 2. Weapons don't break, and there's a surfeit of ammunition and cash. (If you really want to annoy the developers, track them down and let them know that BioShock had too much ammo. Many gamers may not remember the main complaint leveled at System Shock 2 was the dearth of ammo. Personally, I thought there was the perfect amount to create suspense – the wealth in BioShock reduces possible tension but averts complaints.)
Despite the excellent soundtrack written for the game, the best (and most effective) music is comprised of classic songs from Rapture's era that perfectly counterpoint the action. Furthermore, the best part of the sound is the ambient noise that regularly made me jump out of my skin. A well-placed clang or mumbled thought from a splicer could make me afraid to drop the controller.
Are there any issues with BioShock? Every game has flaws, but the Xbox 360 version of BioShock's are particularly minor. Once in a while, textures will pop in split seconds after you see them, so that very rarely, a wall will come into view and then the blood splattered over it will pop up afterwards. But tiny issues such as this are very rare. The gameplay much more than compensates.
So, should you play BioShock? Yes! Absolutely, yes! It's simply brilliant. It's barely been released, and it's already a classic. When I tried to explain the game to an English major, I told her to think of it as the Pride and Prejudice of the video game world. Only, instead of young, handsome soldiers, there are genetic monstrosities in an underwater, Art-Deco utopia. Oh, and D'Arcy is a power-mad industrialist. Of course, if you hate Jane Austen, you'll still love BioShock.