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BioShock (PC) artwork

BioShock (PC) review


"BioShock is an expertly crafted and finely tuned videogame: every inch of the level design has its place and purpose, and most of that purpose involves creating an astonishingly believable world out of something so incredible. The series of giant hubs that comprise the city are exactly as you’d expect the different districts to look, and contain exactly the amenities you'd expect to find there. The architecture in particular is wonderful: a phenomenal fusion of elaborate 50s art deco with the metallic necessity of constructing such an underwater world. Even the true greats at creating a palpable, utterly plausible environment – Deus Ex, Half-Life, System Shock 2 – didn't come anywhere near this incredible accomplishment."



It's important to establish two things right from the start of this review. Number one: BioShock will not change your life, nor will it revolutionise gaming. Number two: that doesn't matter in the slightest.

In a post-war world where half the globe has been devastated by conflict for seven years, the obvious thing to do is to build an enormous underwater city where the elite can seek refuge from the wreckage and start a new existence. But the elite are power-hungry, and no land can exist without nasty politics, be it above or below sea level. And so welcome Rapture: a vast, gaping, once beautiful world that, by the time the game opens in 1960, is in a state of turmoil. It's not obvious early on – and that’s the beauty of this narrative – but it has something to do with a mysterious product known as ADAM: the heroin of the sea, the result of suspicious, top-level stem-cell research. ADAM has become a bit of a problem in Rapture, with an enormous, overpowering industry controlling people's newfound reliance on the product and its derivatives. It's become so much of a problem, in fact, that a second great war has broken out in what was designed as a safe haven. What's left of Rapture is a haunting expanse of rubble and remains, populated by the power-crazy and their poor, helpless victims, driven to insanity by the whole charade.

This is the world you find yourself in after your plane crashes in the middle of the ocean, with no refuge in sight other than a conspicuous elevator shaft sticking out of the water. It's a grand opening, a glorious mess of metal and fire as you try to escape with your life. It gets better second by second, so much so that by the time you catch your first glimpse of Rapture – and it really is a spectacular moment – you’re already deeply engrossed in the story. It's immediately obvious that BioShock is an expertly crafted and finely tuned videogame: every inch of the level design has its place and purpose, and most of that purpose involves creating an astonishingly believable world out of something so incredible. The series of giant hubs that comprise the city are exactly as you’d expect the different districts to look, and contain exactly the amenities you'd expect to find there. The architecture in particular is wonderful: a phenomenal fusion of elaborate 50s art deco with the metallic necessity of constructing such an underwater world. Even the true greats at creating a palpable, utterly plausible environment – Deus Ex, Half-Life, System Shock 2 – didn't come anywhere near this incredible accomplishment.

Ah yes, System Shock 2. It's worth noting, in case no one's told you already, that BioShock is essentially System Shock 3 - or, at least, a faithful update of Shock 2 set a couple of hundred years previous. It's uncannily similar at times, from the disembodied voice guiding you via radio, to the modifiable weapons, to the regeneration chambers that eliminate the frustration of 'dying', to the low-grade role-playing elements that both accommodate and govern your playing style. Even the narrative follows a familiar path, and although it would be a crime to reveal too much, it would be a safe bet to expect the same breed of edge-of-seat twists and turns throughout BioShock. The main difference between System- and Bio- is that the latter is a much more streamlined game. It seems to be a principle modelled on Ion Storm's creation of Deus Ex: Invisible War - keep the best bits, refine them, and chuck the rest out. As such, the scope isn't as wide, but what's left is a fabulous core, brimming with excitement and playability. It'll certainly attract a more mainstream audience to its type, being predominantly an action-packed first-person shooter instead of a slow, crawling stealth experience, but the central ideals remain. This is distinctly a game from the Looking Glass school, and the fact that Ken Levine is the brain behind BioShock would come as no surprise to someone who didn't already know.

Shades of other games stand out as well. The dark, foreboding gloom of Doom 3. The pacing and the set-pieces of the Half-Life series. Some of these set-pieces send a shiver down your spine: glimpses through windows of horrific assassinations; high-speed river rapid action as a wall cracks, the ocean pouring mercilessly into the city. Even when in no immediate danger from the 'Splicers' – the unfortunate Rapture population driven paranoid and psychotic by excessive ADAM consumption – the world itself can pose a threat. Rapture is falling down around you, and someone seems to be calibrating everything they can in an attempt to ensure you never leave. One of the things that makes BioShock such an intense game is that even the safest areas aren't entirely safe. As the player, you are constantly on your toes, constantly on edge.

The main problem here, then, is that there's still stuff to do. The narrative, the setting, the atmosphere of BioShock pull you so deep into the legend that some of the menial tasks begin to grate. There were times, even by half way through the game, when I found myself idly shooting through crowds of splicers, thinking 'yes, yes, but what happens next?' There's a lot of to-ing and fro-ing on display as well: take this item to this person so he'll grant you access to this area. And more often than not, just as you think you've completed the task, something will explode or fall over and block your path, and suddenly you're back where you started, trying to find another way to progress. At the risk of sounding overly miserable, it's – dare I say it? – almost a little samey, and the game world, spectacular as it may be, is too linear and directed to allow for much exploratory fun.

One does get the impression from a few aspects of BioShock that it could have been a bit more ambitious than it is. Take the concept of Little Sisters and Big Daddies. These are young girls implanted with slugs of ADAM, and the terrifying mechanised bodyguards that follow them around the city. Neither of them will really notice your presence ordinarily. But down in Rapture, you need ADAM too, and the Little Sisters are the easiest source. Can you face the guilt of murdering a helpless child? Can you face the wrath of the awesome Big Daddy if so? A fantastic concept to play with, but one that's wholly underdeveloped. Your decision here affects the game in such a minimal way that it's rather confusing why 2K Games even bothered with it in the first place. Defeating a Big Daddy and cornering a Little Sister leaves you with two options: basically, kill and take the ADAM, or rescue the little girl. The only real con of the former is that you get a bit of a bollocking in a cut-scene at the end of the game, so if you do bring down a Big Daddy it becomes sensible to just take the ADAM and run. Moreover, it's questionable whether these encounters are even necessary in the first place: depending on your playing style, and depending on how good you are at conserving resources, there could well be quite a few occasions when you can go without.

Minor flaws - so long as you treat them as such. BioShock could be bigger, it could be more exhaustive and it could be more varied. But it isn't, nor does it try to be. BioShock is a sublimely crafted, beautifully written and staggeringly enjoyable action game that, aside from a few small blips, stands head and shoulders above the majority of its peers. It's a resounding statement of what the medium is capable of, and - outside the world of Gordon Freeman, at least - you'd be hard-pressed to find much better.

Rating: 9/10

Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (June 12, 2008)

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Suskie posted June 19, 2008:

This is a good review, and I agree that while BioShock isn't quite the masterpiece many media outlets claim it is, it's still worth playing. One thing I wanted to point out, though. The paragraph near the end about the big "moral dilemmas" involving the Little Sisters is missing one crucial detail. When you make the choice to save Little Sisters, they'll start leaving behind gifts of appreciation, just as Tenenbaum promised. The items they give you (including more ADAM) far outweigh what you would have earned had you simply killed them in the first place, thus the obvious choice is to simply save them and wait for a reward.

This actually means that the whole mechanic is even more underdeveloped than you claim it is, since being the good guy actually reaps more rewards. Leave this stuff to BioWare, I guess.

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