All eyes have been on the upcoming release of Halo 3, and suddenly we are side-swiped by Bioshock, a somewhat different first-person shooter. Those devs at 2K Boston/2K Australia have apparently created a masterpiece and for the past two weeks it is all anyone has been talking about. Is it all that it is cracked up to be? Let’s see.
You play Jack, an unlucky sod whose plane crashes into the ocean near a mysterious lighthouse. Being the protagonist and not able to be killed off this early in the story, you survive the crash and rescue yourself on the shores of the lighthouse.
Now this is no ordinary lighthouse and on closer investigation it seems this is the access point to Rapture. Rapture is the brain-child of megalomaniac Andrew Ryan, who in the 1946 established an enormous underwater city to get away from the critical eye of modern government. This self-supporting underwater haven was perfect for Ryan’s genetic modifications and experiments. Beautiful gardens to produce oxygen, machine rooms, fisheries, and entertainment. Everything the citizens of Rapture could need or want and the privacy with which to undertake his experiments.
The Rapture that you witness however, is no more the glorious vision of Ryan, but a city torn apart. It is under attack from the vast amount of water surrounding it. The beautifully rendered city has water cascading in in parts pooling in gorgeous shimmering streams that trickle down stair cases and occasionally force you to wade through rooms. The water is incredible and the glass windows throughout allow you to gaze in awe out at the fish and sea-life which passes by the underwater city.
All the while you will be followed by a diverse eery soundtrack which tends to give you chills at times, the occasional gramophone player spitting out tunes from years long gone. The diversity in the environments is incredible and no one place is the same, you are continually surprised and in awe. Literally your jaw will drop when you see this environment which is so detailed and painstakingly put together.
The city, however, is crumbling due to the chaos which is ensuing within, because not only is the ocean encroaching on this artificial habitat, so are the citizens of Rapture. Rapture was upset by the discovery of ADAM: essentially pure stem cells which could enhance your skills and abilities by being spliced to your DNA. Obviously this ADAM is a powerful substance, and this is what has caused the balance of Rapture to be disrupted.
The world is populated by Splicers, Little Sisters and Big Daddies. Splicers are genetic freaks who have spliced too much ADAM to their genetic code and become hungry for more ADAM therefore they attack anything and everything they encounter. Splicers come in several forms, some wield guns, some grenades, others use plasmids to become invisible, and then there are the spooky spider splicers that creep along the ceilings and drop down in front of you, or throw hooks at you from afar. All of these help to add to the creepy and the ‘things that go bump in the night’ atmosphere, even if you are left feeling that a bit more variety may have spiced things up.
Plasmids and Gene Tonics are instant genetic modifications and they are found throughout Rapture. To fully exploit them a supply of ADAM is needed and this is where the Big Daddies and Little Sisters come in. Little Sisters are brain-washed genetically modified little girls who are trained to extract ADAM from corpses lying around Rapture. The Big Daddies protect these ADAM harvesters from Splicers who would love to harvest the ADAM.
Big Daddies are enormous humans pimped up on ADAM to give them super-human strength, dumped into a diving suit with a massive steel diving helm on. Pretty horrific when one of these guys charges at you! When you take on a Big Daddy, you will have the option of harvesting the Little Sister for ADAM, or rescuing her for less ADAM. This was touted as an emotionally charged moral event, however the consequences of your actions are virtually non-existent, except that it will impact the game ending. Although some people certainly will find it harder to harvest Little Sisters than others...
So all this ADAM and these plasmids, but what does it have to do with you? Well shortly after you arrive you splice yourself with a plasmid that leaves your hand sparking electricity, and giving you the possibility of shooting electricity from your hand. This is one of many different abilities including fire, ice and mind control plasmids. This makes for an incredibly diverse game which challenges you to use your environment combined with the plasmids to make your way through the treacherous world of Rapture.
Weapons are also available and these include the usual array. A nice addition is that there are several weapons upgrade stations around where you can select which weapon to upgrade. This upgrade is also reflected visually and makes the weapons you wield look plain awesome. However something here is lacking. Hitting a splicer from a short distance with a full blow from a shotgun should finish him, and initially it does. But as the game progresses they become stronger and tougher and the damage modeling unrealistic in that the enemies just take more and more to kill, rather than requiring well aimed shots although these do help.
These weapons upgrades are just scratching the surface of a deep set of customisation which greatly affects the kind of game you will play. One of the coolest parts of Bioshock is that you are constantly looking for things around you to use. A puddle of water to electrocute, or an oil slick to light on fire. Use plasmids to freeze your enemies and hit them with the wrench and watch them shatter into thousands of tiny fragments.
Enter much hyped artificial intelligence. Much has been said about the AI in Bioshock prior to the release. What is impressive is how when a splicer is lit on fire he will run toward water to douse his fiery frame, giving you the perfect opportunity to electroshock him while he is cooling off. This entertaining element gives Bioshock some re-playability as it gives the player options for every encounter.
The other element of the AI was the splicers and Big Daddies who roam around regardless of your presence. This means you will occasionally step into a room and see a splicer aggressing a Big Daddy in an attempt to take the Little Sister's ADAM. However a splicer is no match for a Big Daddy and he will make short work of the splicer.
To us, however, these encounters seemed almost scripted. A splicer rarely will ignore you when you step into a room, and take on a Big Daddy instead, so this was dissapointing in that it didn’t ‘feel’ as though there was anything ground-breaking about this approach. It also seemed as though in many instances the game was too fast paced to take advantage of this AI feat. Although you certainly do have some moments to enjoy the beautiful surroundings.
The story is driven onwards by messages you receive over a short-wave radio where you are tasked with completing objectives throughout the city. The story remains quite linear though, with an arrow and a map guiding you from point to point. It would be easy to not stray from the path, but it is only then that you really understand what is going on.
Around the game world are tape-recorders with thoughts recorded from Rapture's inhabitants which explain the story in snippets and slowly form a bigger picture. This adds to the immersion, however I found this approach difficult to follow at times and some things did not make as much sense as they could have. All in all this approach will work for some, and not so much for others, although in the menu you can playback all the recordings and messages you have received so you can refresh your memory later in the game.
And to add a little to the spice of your average FPS you have the hacking mini-games for hacking the security cameras, bots and drones that are dotted around Rapture. By doing this you can turn Rapture's security systems on the splicers, and this can be immensely useful.
What is particularly pleasant in this fast paced action packed game, is that when you die you are revived in the nearest Vita-Chamber without any loss of weapons or skills. The downside to this is that with no punishment for dying it often is easier to be killed than to use the precious health packs.
Bioshock is an incredible FPS. It brings so much to the genre, and is by no means conventional. The game was fluid throughout with very little frame-rate hiccups, at least nothing noticeable. And considering the detail and plethora of beautiful effects this is no simple feat.
Several moments will make you jump, with the dark and horrible realisations of Rapture become clear to the player. The story is fascinating and exciting and is by far the highlight of this title, and the multiple endings will have you coming back for more. The character customisation also plays more like an RPG which is an interesting element, reminding us of Deus Ex. The downsides are the generic enemies, the linear story driven environment, which however is saved by the huge diversity in approaches to each section with your use of plasmids and weapons.
This is possibly the greatest FPS story. The living environment, even if it does not live up to expectations, is moving at times when Little Sisters and Big Daddies interact. Bioshock is what gaming should be, an art-form.