BioShock (Xbox 360) review
"The setting of Rapture is unique, which in horror-themed FPS terms means the developers were free to pull off new environmental tricks – like having water leaking in through the windows, or making the walls creak from the pressure – in addition to the usual flickering lights and distant screams. Irrational also knew how to handle irony and awkward juxtaposition, too. Watching a little girl in a pink dress who’s stabbing corpses with a giant syringe get attacked by a bunch of lunatics wielding rusty pipes is unsettling. It’s even more unsettling when it all unfolds as “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?” plays on an old turntable in the background."
BioShock begins with a plane crash somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic in 1960. We never once see the main character’s face, and are just as disoriented as he is when we emerge from the ocean’s surface surrounded by fire, with only an airplane tail and a towering lighthouse visible against the dark sky. Swim over to this structure, and the enormous golden head of a man named Andrew Ryan looms over you with a declaration: “NO GODS OR KINGS, ONLY MAN.” This is clearly a guy with a plan.
Jump into that automated submarine and you’ll get a recorded introduction by Ryan himself, who dreamt of a perfect capitalist society secluded from religion and communism, where he could bring together the world’s richest and brightest scientists, doctors and engineers – plus, as it just so happens, a guy to cook the hamburgers – and build a new world where it could never be found. Then the curtain pulls back and we get a sweeping shot of this alleged paradise: Rapture, an enormous underwater city, a hydropolis if you will, in all its glory. That its towering skyscrapers and blazing neon lights rest on the ocean floor only works to make the view even more magnificent.
Then the bathysphere pulls into the station, and the first thing we see is a man being brutally mauled to death by a crazed woman with hooks for hands. Okay, I want out.
Indeed, the piles of picket signs claiming that “Ryan doesn’t own us” seem to indicate that not all is well in Rapture, that this glorious deep sea metropolis has taken a turn for the worst. Corpses litter the hallways, and most of those inhabitants who have managed to stay alive (called “splicers,” more or less because someone at Irrational thought that word sounded cool) seem to enjoy killing things while screaming senseless rubbish – if it weren’t for the help of a kindly fellow named Atlas, you’d likely be all alone here at the bottom of the ocean. Once you finally do meet Ryan, the creepiest thing about him is that he’s still intent on governing Rapture long after it’s gone to hell.
If nothing else, BioShock sure is amazing to look at. There are elements of survival horror at play here, and a big part of pulling this off is atmosphere, which is arguably the game’s biggest strength. The setting of Rapture is unique, which in horror-themed FPS terms means the developers were free to pull off new environmental tricks – like having water leaking in through the windows, or making the walls creak from the pressure – in addition to the usual flickering lights and distant screams. Irrational also knew how to handle irony and awkward juxtaposition, too. Watching a little girl in a pink dress who’s stabbing corpses with a giant syringe get attacked by a bunch of lunatics wielding rusty pipes is unsettling. It’s even more unsettling when it all unfolds as “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?” plays on an old turntable in the background.
BioShock is said to be the spiritual successor to the System Shock series, which Irrational also developed. This comparison makes sense, given the similarities in tone and pacing. (It’s also said to be based on Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, which I know very little about.) Where the game goes beyond the norm is its setting, and the oxymoronic sick beauty with which it’s brought to life. Rapture is like nothing else I’ve ever seen, and BioShock is truly unlike any game I’ve ever played.
…Except when it comes to gameplay itself, that is. Indeed, the most surprising thing about BioShock is, taking into account how much effort went into the production values and attention to detail, just how basic and ordinary the thing is in practice. You’ll see elements of other popular FPSs slipping through – the recorded journal entries used for story progression, the telekinesis ability that functions just like Half-Life 2’s gravity gun – and it follows a design structure that will feel instantly familiar to, well, just about anyone. BioShock is no masterpiece; it’s simply a solid FPS that just happens to look and sound incredible.
Level design, for one thing, is far too reliant on backtracking and fetch quests, with certain areas often appearing small until you realize you’ve got to tread across them two or three times before you move on. Inhabiting them are enemies whose intelligence is just a step above the zombie level, where the only real strategy is derived from figuring out which splicer “type” you’re up against: There’s the splicer who bum rushes you, the splicer who tries to mow you down with a machine gun, the splicer who has hooks on his hands and scales the ceilings like Spider-Man, etc. These enemies are fun to fight, sure, but they’re not interesting. At least they're psychotic enough to inspire a few jump-in-your-seat shocks.
And so Irrational has packed the design with RPG elements to keep players intrigued: Security bots and sentry guns can be persuaded to fight on your side via a too-frequently-recurring hacking mini-game; various tonics can heighten battle performance and provide special abilities; taking pictures of enemies allows you to deal more damage to them; raw materials can be used to construct specialized ammunition; weapon upgrades, such as larger pistol clip size and a reduction in machine gun recoil, can be issued; yada yada yada. All of these elements come together to create the illusion of an adventure that is deep and involving, when in fact there’s not much more to BioShock than what’s on the surface.
The one area that got a lot of attention is the use of plasmids, which make up what can loosely be called a magic system. These injection-based drugs are advertised all over Rapture – “Light up foes to a thousand degrees! PLASMIDS BY RYAN INDUSTRIES.” – and consist almost entirely of typical video game superpowers, like fire and ice and electricity and all that crap. It’s the application of these abilities that makes things interesting. Shoot a bolt of electricity at a group of enemies standing in a pool of water and you’ll take them all out at once. Any explosive barrels lying around? Break out the telekinesis and chuck them at your foes. I only wish the common splicers you’ll battle for most of the game required anything more than your basic weapon set to defeat.
The rules change when you take on the enormous, hulking Big Daddies, whose thunderous footsteps and roaring moans make for an ominous and constant presence throughout the game. Each Big Daddy comprises a boss battle in and of itself, often requiring the creative use of your plasmids – plus that specialized ammo you’ve been saving – to bring down. They’re faster than they look, for one thing, and their thick armor allows them to sustain quite a bit of damage. These feisty, fearsome villains have certainly earned their place on the front of BioShock’s box.
Unfortunately, their presence also brings to light one of the game’s biggest flaws, which is that it is impossible to die. Throughout Rapture, you’ll find a number of vita-chambers that revive you when you fall in battle. So they’re checkpoints, right? No. I mean to say that when you’re killed, you’ll immediately be brought back to life without losing any progress whatsoever. Let’s say you’re fighting a Big Daddy, and you manage to bring him down to a quarter of his health before he drops you. After you’re revived, you can return to that exact spot, and there’s the same Big Daddy, with three-fourths of his health still gone. Unsurprisingly, much of the challenge seems to drain away when you realize those ferocious Big Daddies literally can’t kill you.
Ugh. My tone is probably coming off as too negative by now, when in fact I enjoyed BioShock quite a bit and mean only to provide a counterpoint to the legions of glowing reviews that somehow managed to average a 95% on GameRankings. Your opinion on BioShock will likely depend on your expectations. Believe in that 95%, and BioShock will probably turn out to be one of this generation’s biggest disappointments. Take into account everything I’ve said, however, and I think you’ll have a good time with it, as I did… though I fear I may have enjoyed it for the wrong reasons.
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