If Jules Verne and William F. Nolan teamed up and had access to the Unreal 3 engine, this game would probably have been the result. Well, you’d have to add in a team of elite programmers and some computers, not to mention a rift in the space time continuum that would allow all of these elements to appear together. But, if by chance it did happen, Bioshock would be the result.
This is a very appealing prospect, however the important question here is: is it any good? Well, yes. As much as I’d love to stand out from the crowd and be different, Bioshock is a very good first person shooter and to say otherwise would be clearly wrong. However, is it the huge leap forward that was promised in pre-release hype? No, but I’ll get to the bitching later.
The game itself looks amazing not only through graphical fidelity, but design. A crazed mixture of steampunk and art deco, pipes and machinery a theme which runs from the environment to its most dangerous inhabitants, the menacing ‘Big Daddy’s’. The enemy ‘splicers’ (people drunk on power from genetic engineering) maintain this feel, wearing masks and headdresses, as if from a 1940’s ball. As well as the exemplary design work, the water looks incredible, pouring through the many gaps and breaks in the walls of the sunken city Rapture. To add to this atmosphere, the sound work is superb, full of ambient groans as the pressure of thousands of feet of water crush against the crumbling walls of this once fantastical world.
Rapture is under the rule of the once great Andrew Ryan, a man who built a city on a dream, but it was eventually over run by human nature. This has lead to the underwater metropolis crumbling into the world seen in the game, with Ryan trying desperately to hold on to the remains of his life’s work. By basing the characters on such real desires, 2K Productions have provided a grounding for the fantasy world- as well as offering a genuine sense of Pathos to the protagonists.
So far, so great. The combat is very well handled, with all of the weapons (bar the horrendously underpowered pistol) feeling as dangerous as they should. In addition to the weapons, the player has access to a range of plasmids and tonic, that genetically modify the character with extra defensive and offensive abilities, that bring some degree of customisation to the game. These can be combined with environmental elements too. An enemy standing in oil? Use the Incinerate plasmid for extra damage. An enemy standing in water? Use the electro bolt plasmid for shocking results. That pun was too obvious.
Though the combat is one of the main strengths of the game, it also provides the cracks where the game experience starts to let water in. The open ended nature of weaponry allows the player to carry eight large weapons, with three different ammunition types for each at any one time. For quite a while, physics has dictated the impossibility of this, but then again it is set in an underwater city so realism shouldn’t be an issue. The reason this is a problem is that it doesn’t allow the player to develop their own character – you always have the choice to do something completely different, meaning that the gamer is never able to adopt their own identity. This is the other problem: the only choices in the game are how to kill people. In fact, it does seem that the solution to every problem the character faces is to shoot it. Even by hacking into gun turrets and security systems, it still only means that there will be more things shooting at the enemy. For a game that sees itself as being a complex moral play, you’d think there would be more peaceful options- Deus Ex and it’s sequel offered these, and they came out four years ago.
The morality of the game really boils down to the ‘Little Sisters’, genetically modified children that wander with the Big Daddies to harvest DNA from dead residents of Rapture. In this, the player is offered a simple choice: harvest, the child dies but you get more resources from it, or rescue, where the child survives but you get less. These dictate one of two endings that can be obtained- you’re either a charity worker or a megalomaniac. It’d be nice for some actual moral complexity- I played the earlier part of the game harvesting, but for the majority of the game decided to rescue the little sisters. The game didn’t take into account this change in character, and still gave the evil ending. Strangely for a game that involves massacring the population of a city, it sees killing the Little Sisters as evil, but doesn’t care about the other thousand people who get shot. Apparently you have to save all of the Little Sisters to get the good ending, so it might as well just let you decide on the first one, then act automatically later.
So, you’re not given the ability to really customise a player to your own tastes (you can choose plasmids and tonics, but by the end you have so many there isn’t a great degree of choice), the moral choices are only very basic. In addition to this, the player is only really given an insight into their own character about seven hours into the game, at which point the game improves immensely. It does seem a shame to have a world full of so much detail, then have a character without any personality. The story around it though is brilliant, with lots of exciting and intriguing detail on the way the world was made and how it was unmade. The moans of the splicers, the posters and the art around Rapture also add a great feeling of atmosphere.
So, do these flaws sink Bioshock? No, it is fantastic and I do feel really bad for focusing on the negatives rather than the positives in this review. However, the positives are well documented elsewhere, but these were areas that I felt actually were flawed and should be taken into account. It’s definitely in the top three 360 games out at the moment (alongside the Darkness and Gears of War), maybe even at the top. It’s not perfect, but it’s a hell of a promising return for 2K Productions and I for one can’t wait to see how they’ll build on this.