Review by Evil Dave

"Bioshock is definitely not perfect - but it's still outstanding."

Any PC gamer worth their stripes knows System Shock. Released in 1994, the game gathered accolades from nearly every critical outlet, with many such entities going so far as to label it with some version of their ‘Game of the Year' moniker. Even today, it is included on most ‘greatest of' compilations or lists compiled by the gaming press, as is its direct successor, System Shock 2.

So, what made those two games so great? Simply put, it was the way the player experienced them. At the time, games were still fairly one-dimensional affairs, and could usually be pegged into one of a handful of prototypical genres; System Shock, however, did not fit nicely into any such preordained classification. This game combined RPG-like stat management and character modification with shooter-like gameplay, and tied its innovative design together with a gripping narrative and top-of-the-line visuals. Many of the ideas behind the two have now become genre staples, and the influence this title has had on the gaming industry is still felt today.

Alas, despite the widespread acclaim these two games garnered, they never became the money-making mainstream hits that their publisher, Electronic Arts, had hoped for. Eventually, the development minds behind the projects gravitated away from series guardian Looking Glass Studios, and the studio eventually shuttered its doors in the year following System Shock 2's publication. Thankfully, though, in the videogame industry ‘gone' often does not mean ‘forgotten.' Irrational Games was formed shortly before the closure of Looking Glass Studios, and much of the menagerie staff from the latter migrated to the former in the wake of the latter company's demise.

Now, more than eight full years after System Shock 2's release, a new, self-proclaimed ‘spiritual successor' has come to the XBox 360. Developed by the former Irrational Games, now rechristened 2K Boston, Bioshock is a brand-new hybrid RPG/shooter that sports the closest realization of a true System Shock sequel to date. In this game, players are tasked with exploring the underwater utopia of Rapture, which has fallen into disrepair thanks to a powerful genetic modification process that has driven most of its society to shambles. Mysterious as it is ambitious, Bioshock represents a culmination of the design ideology behind the System Shock games – and it just so happens to be an outstanding game in its own right, too.

Visuals:

Being a fully contained metropolis, Rapture is home to many of the diverse locales you would expect to find in your average mid-sized town. This fact is easily impressed upon you during the course of the game, as you arrive alternately at marketplaces, residential areas, research facilities, and various industrial districts, all of which feature unique and appropriate layouts. The 1950s styling is dead-on, from the abundant, cartoonish advertisements, to the technology that populates the environments.

What really stands out about Rapture, though, is the state of disarray you'll find it in. At the time of your arrival, the city has apparently been in decline for a good while, and you're faced with quite a bit of destruction that testifies to that fact. Bullet holes pock the walls, sections of the architecture have collapsed into piles of rubble, and bodies and bloodstains fill the hallways. The omnipresent devastation does a wonderful job of conveying the chaos and carnage of the years prior to your arrival, without ever necessitating an explicit explanation.

And then there's the water. Since Rapture is situated right smack at the bottom of the ocean, the damage to its structure has given the sea a leg up in its attempts to reclaim the real estate the city had borrowed from it. You'll see water everywhere – spraying through cracks in glass windows, cascading through holes in the ceiling, pooling in depressed sections of the floor – and it all not only looks absolutely gorgeous, but reacts just as you would expect it to whenever you come into contact with it. Even the ocean that hasn't managed to retake parts of the city is perfect, leaving you with an uneasy, claustrophobic feel every time you glance at it through a window.

The populace of Rapture is no less of a sight to behold. Your most plentiful foes are the genetically modified denizens of the city, and these gentlemen and ladies are uniform in their disturbingly altered, yet recognizably human, appearances. Both in and out of combat, the character animation for all of these various ‘splicers' is superb, giving you a small window into their present madness. The Big Daddy/Little Sister combos that have come to symbolize the game also look very nice in motion – the daddies can be quite imposing to stumble upon (being the hulking, lumbering murder machines that they are), while the sisters look equally sinister and frail as they traverse the hallways in search of the genetic goo that makes the city tick.

You'll take in all of these sights exclusively via the first-person perspective, as you never see more than the forearms of the nameless protagonist whom you control. This viewpoint allows for a front-row view of the awesome power of your genetic abilities, all of which are spectacular to watch. Slowdown is a rare occurrence, but it does tend to pop up consistently in some areas when a Big Daddy is lumbering nearby; regardless, it's not likely to affect your game experience when it does rear its head. The Havok physics engine is used extremely well with relation to environmental objects, with clipping rarely being noticeable. HDTV owners will be happy to note that the game supports up to 1080p resolution, too boot.

Bioshock is a beautiful game in virtually every way possible, thanks to its impressive art design and solid technical underpinnings.

Score: 10/10

Sound:

Bioshock purports to provide players a playground of tools to use in fighting their way through Rapture's halls. Naturally, with such a broad range of potential interactions in the game environment, the developers needed to engineer a soundscape of effects that would suitably immerse players in the game world during their travels underwater. Without question, that goal was met, from top to bottom – and every other facet of the game benefits enormously from the potency of the acoustics.

All through your first few hours in Rapture, you'll grow acquainted with a cacophony that will follow you for the entire duration of your stay. You'll hear security cameras buzzing as they swivel back and forth; you'll round corners and be confronted with an automated turret kick-starting to life, ready to spew bullets in your direction; you'll hear the various splicers in the area muttering and screaming to no one in particular; you'll hear water dripping, rushing, or spraying into the city from every which way. Each of these sounds occupies is own unique space in the grand scheme, and you'll grow almost immediately to recognize each from the faintest of hints. Most impressive of all, you'll know exactly where the noise is coming from every time, thanks to built-in surround sound (as well as Dolby Digital support for those with such a setup) that ratchets the tension up. There is one caveat, though: the sound seems to glitchily cut in and out on some of the more secondary effects as you play, which can leave you a bit flustered when you first notice it.

Of course, you'll also grow familiar with the various characters who inhabit (or formerly inhabited) Rapture. There's quite a menagerie cast down there – Rapture supposedly took the best and brightest from anywhere in the world, so there are plenty of performances in accented English, which sound good, if not a little odd. In any case, all of the voiceover actors make their work count when it matters, infusing their line readings with emotional overtones that suit the part they're reading. This is a very good thing, as the vast majority of your interactions with these people occur via radio communications and tape recorders that you'll gather as you progress.

Enemy characters really take the cake in the voice acting department, though. From their random utterances as they mindlessly patrol the city to their enraged babbling as they try to murder you, the splicers' talkative nature is a constant reminder of the remnants of their humanity. Little Sisters are quite talkative, urging the protective Big Daddies along with the eagerness of a child in one breath, and then exhorting the behemoths to kill anyone who dares trespass against them in the next. And those Big Daddies? Their angry bellowing serves as a primal warning that neither they nor the sisters are to be trifled with.

As if all that wasn't enough, Bioshock also features an impressive soundtrack to compliment the already-fantastic sound production. The game contains around twenty licensed songs from the 1950s, which run the gamut from Frank Sinatra to The Ink Spots, and these tracks are employed to magnificent effect on record players and jukeboxes that you'll stumble upon in the various businesses and homes of Rapture. In between these instances, there are a good number of orchestral tunes to occupy the background during your exploration, and these tunes do a solid job of keeping the tension palpable.

In a game with as much riding on its acoustics as Bioshock, it's a tribute to the talent of the production team for this facet of the project to perform so admirably.

Score: 9/10

Gameplay:

System Shock was renowned for the options it gave players. It, too, showcased cutting-edge graphical and sound production (for its time, anyway) – but all the bells and whistles in the world couldn't have made it the classic game that it is without the deep, meaningful choices it forced you to make along the way. Anointed, somewhat dauntingly, as a ‘spiritual successor' to that style of gameplay, Bioshock is a great game in its own right, because it successfully captures the essence of freedom that separated the System Shock games from their peers.

Once you've arrived in Rapture proper, you're introduced over the radio to a man named Atlas, who serves remotely as your guide through the better part of the game. Most of your goals will come from instructions Atlas gives you as part of his greater plans for escaping the city. The game provides you with a number of resources to manage these objectives, including a fully detailed map and a goal arrow that points toward your eventual target from your HUD. Once you're given your purpose, though, you're on your own to get the task done.

Each of the ten various segments of Rapture are inhabited by an independently functional ecosystem of sorts, comprised of splicers, Big Daddies, Little Sisters, and mechanical security devices. Your intrusion in pursuit of your aims – and the reaction from the living and mechanical residents – forms the core of Bioshock's gameplay. Mostly, you'll find yourself engaging in combat with these various menaces – and that's where the game's uniqueness shines through.

The most valuable asset in Rapture is ADAM, a stem cell-like substance that allows for genetic modification in anyone who wields it. This special goop is the reason why this former utopia is now in such a state of ruin – first, it drove citizens to fight a war over it, and then repeated genetic alteration drove slowly drove those citizens insane. ADAM is in short supply by the time you hit the sea floor, and so all those splicers who dosed up on it are in desperate search of more. Luckily, you know how to get your hands on plenty of the stuff – if you can get through a Big Daddy, that is.

Little Sisters are the key cog in Rapture's ADAM cycle. These genetically altered, mentally conditioned little girls patrol the city, Big Daddy in tow, and they ‘recycle' ADAM from corpses by ingesting it. Take down the Big Daddy that watches over one such girl, and you've got yourself access to some of this genetic currency that greases the city's wheels; of course, this is where Bioshock's key moral dilemma comes into play. To obtain the ADAM that any given Little Sister possesses, you're given the option of harvesting or rescuing the girl. Rescue her, and you're given 80 ADAM, and the girl is freed of her gruesome bondage; harvest her, and you obtain 160 ADAM, at the expense of the sister's life. Choosing between the two options can be a wrenching decision, although towards the end of the game you're not likely to need the ADAM nearly as much. Your ending will differ based on how many you save, as well, so there is outside motivation when choosing between the alternatives.

ADAM's use is in trade: you exchange various amounts of the glop at vending machines to purchase new abilities and latent skills, called plasmids and gene tonics, respectively. Plasmids function as your pseudo-magical spells, bestowing you a myriad of offensive and defensive tools, ranging from an electrical bolt attack to telekinesis, which form the core of your combat arsenal; gene tonics bestow various passive abilities, such as quicker movement or stronger resistance to damage. Some of these various skills are much more useful than others – indeed, you can theoretically get through the entire game using only the first three plasmids bestowed upon you – and based on your play style, you'll come to an arrangement that most suits you.

Plasmids aren't your only combat option, though, as Bioshock is still a first-person shooter, replete with a range of weapons for taking down genetic freaks. Your primary weapon is a simple wrench, used for melee attacks, and as you delve further into Rapture you'll gather a typical pistol, shotgun, and machine gun, in addition to a few half-baked contraptions that function as a grenade launcher, a flamethrower, and a crossbow. You can upgrade these weapons at various stations throughout the city, adding more damage output and larger ammunition capacity, as well as utilize different ammunition types with each, so there is even a fair amount of choice involved in your armament; sadly, most of the weapons don't feel very fulfilling to use next to your plasmids, given their antiquity.

It's when you put all of your various plasmids and munitions into use during combat that you'll begin to really enjoy the breadth of selections made available to you in Bioshock. As a result of this plethora of tools, your battles can get quite hectic. For example, let's say you accidentally allow yourself to be spotted by a security camera. You're now going to face a sixty-second stream of hovering security bots, as well as a loud alarm that will alert any nearby splicers to your presence. You've got plenty of techniques at your disposal to deal with this threat, though; do you use your electrobolt plasmid on the bots, and then hack them (via a cute little pipe-movement minigame) to fight on your side? Or do you use your enrage plasmid on the nearby Big Daddy, with hopes that, in his anger, he'll end up destroying the attackers that menace you? Or would you prefer to simply duke it out with the aggressors, perhaps by using your telekinesis to grab some nearby oxygen tanks and hurl them towards your foes?

No matter what you choose, the free-form nature that Bioshock's gameplay so perfectly embodies is always brimming with new possibilities. When you combine this open-ended style with the engrossing atmosphere of Rapture, you get a game that really manages to sink its teeth into you. You could easily spend a good thirty hours playing through the campaign, many of which likely would be devoted to simply exploring the many different corridors and back-rooms for extra ammo or gene tonics. Regardless of how greatly you deviate from the beaten path, your experience is likely to retain its creative feel for as long as you find yourself in Rapture.

With that said, it must be noted that Bioshock is a very easy game. Death is not fatal for you in the world of Rapture – if your health empties, you're instantly restored to life at a nearby location, with the game world (and enemy health levels) exactly as they were when you perished. This means that, even on the Hard difficulty setting, you can simply lure any enemy to one of these resurrection chambers, and continually plug away at them without regard to defensive maneuvering. It's a shame that a game like Bioshock, which places such heavy narrative emphasis on life-or-death choices, ends up trivializing your character's mortality, because the surrounding game is so good that it might actually make some people pause to think about the topic.

Bioshock presents an incredible array of decisions to the player as an integral part of its gameplay. The many methods it provides you to use in playing it ultimately congeal into a very organic-feeling game experience that truly separates itself head and shoulders from most games on the market today. Some gamers are certain to feel that the game isn't challenging enough, however, and they are not incorrect in saying so.

Score: 9/10

Story:

Bioshock is one of those rare games where the narrative has a greater impact on you when you enter into the game knowing less about it. Even the rudimentary information present in reviews such as this one will somewhat dampen the more powerful moments early on in the game – evidence of just how compelling the overall plot is.

The game literally begins with a bang, as the airliner you're flying in crash-lands in the middle of an unnamed ocean. You somehow survive, only to find a mysterious lighthouse sitting in what should be a desolate stretch of water. Inside this lighthouse, you discover a bathysphere, and upon activating it you descend down into the decadent wasteland of Rapture. From there, you encounter your first splicer, and soon find yourself caught up in a whirlwind of escape, survival, betrayal, and revenge.

It may not sound like much on your computer screen, but once you're in the world of Rapture, the storyline wholly envelopes you. There are few cutscenes of any kind in Bioshock, and so the majority of the story plays out via radio contacts with the remaining sane residents, and tape recordings you'll collect as you play. This subtle execution is what makes the plot so gripping – you feel a tangible sense that you're an outsider, and that instinctually lends your intrusion and fight for survival an earnest feel that blooms as you progress further through the game.

The tape recordings are a terrific method of filling in the gaps of Rapture's history. Through these, you'll learn about the discovery of ADAM, the subsequent polarization of the city's population, and the eventual war that breaks out – and you'll do so from the perspectives of the residents that supposedly lived through the events themselves. Many of the tapes are frivolous to the core plot, but each one serves as a unique piece to the bigger puzzle of what went wrong in this dystopian undersea world. Giving players the option to either dig deeper or to simply ignore the tape recorders if they're not interested in the city's background is the perfect example of how passively immersive Bioshock's world can be.

For few games is the plot the strongest point of the overall experience. Bioshock is one of those games, thanks mostly to the way it manages to suck you in without yanking you out of the game world.

Score: 10/10

Features/Modes:

There are no gameplay offerings or extra modes in Bioshock outside of the main storyline campaign. The aforementioned three difficulty settings and rival endings are likely to serve as a powerful enticement to a second playthrough for those who enjoyed their first run, but gamers looking for other options or ways to experience the game (such as a plasmid-inclusive multiplayer mode) are likely to be disappointed.

Of course, between the dynamic nature of the game's combat system and the invitingly open world of Rapture, there is plenty of incentive to just toy around with your abilities and explore the city, either for kicks or to show off to your friends. There are also a total of fifty achievements to be had, all of which can be unlocked in one extremely thorough pass through the story.

While Bioshock is a highly replayable game, it is not one that offers a good deal of extra content. That the game still manages not to feel devoid of value is a testament to the quality of its design.

Score: 7/10

Total Score:

It's fair to say that, for some gamers, Bioshock will be a letdown. Without question, the game will likely have experienced gamers wishing for a stronger challenge than what the game exhibits on even the highest setting. This is a fair criticism; in fact, it can even be argued that this flaw effectively undermines the main design goals Irrational Games had in mind when they were in the process of creating Bioshock. You know what, though? Anyone who skips this game due solely to this quibble is simply being short-sighted, and will be missing out on one of the finest entertainment experiences to be had on the XBox 360. While Bioshock doesn't measure up to most shooters in difficulty, it more than compensates for this fault with its startlingly captivating atmosphere, excellent visuals, and incredibly deep and accessible gameplay. It may not be System Shock 3, but it's still a superb game.

Any gamer who owns an XBox 360 and has enjoyed shooters, RPGs, or any action-oriented game genre in between, or who enjoys games that explore mature themes, should definitely go and pick up Bioshock. Any players who enjoyed System Shock or System Shock 2 should also take the plunge for Bioshock, it has their interests at heart. Finally, any gamer who prefers beating a game to experiencing a game should steer clear of this one, because Bioshock is most definitely not for you.

Score: 9/10 (not an average)

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Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 09/05/07

Game Release: BioShock (US, 08/21/07)


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