Review by pixielate_com

"Standard FPS with some nice RPG elements"

The First Person Shooter has been around for a long time now, and most of them follow a set formula.

From Wolfenstein 3d to Halo 3, the recipe is pretty much the same. You have a neat looking place to wander around in, lots of things that need killing, and a smorgasbord of weapons to kill them with. If you're really ambitious, you even have an interesting story about why everything you see needs to die in a hail of gunfire. Beyond that, it's all technical limitations and skill of execution.

Every so often though, someone tries to add something unusual to the mix. Ion Storm did this in 2000 with the hugely popular game Deus Ex, which took the First Person Shooter and then folded in a lot of traditions from RPGs. There are NPCs to talk to, new skills and abilities to acquire, and lots of different paths you can take through the game depending on how you choose to customize your character and which weapons and equipment you use. The result is a truly impressive level of replayability for an FPS because you would generally only see about a third of any given level on a single pass through, and which third depended on what sort of skill packages you were running and choices you were making. Other developers have made similar attempts to expand the conventions of the FPS game, but thus far haven't quite succeeded.

This brings me neatly on to Bioshock.

The game begins with your character surviving a plane crash in the middle of the ocean in the 1960s. You swim away from the debris to find yourself looking up at an enormous Art Deco lighthouse rising up out of the sea. Once you enter the lighthouse, you are drawn into a power struggle between forces you don't fully understand.

Rapture is a city on the bottom of the sea, a utopian vision made real by a technocratic visionary. Make no mistake, Bioshock's visuals are spectacular. Imagine 1940s era New York City, sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic and thoroughly waterproofed, and you've got a glimmering of how amazing the scenery is. Your introduction to your new home includes a view of whales swimming between giant buildings, dimly lit in the murky water by multicolored neon. Inside, there are stylish residential districts and shopping centers, overgrown parks and hydroponic gardens, and vast industrial facilities. The different zones of the game that you travel through are all very distinctive visually, and yet still feel like all part of the same city. All the architecture, décor, and 1950s technology blend together into one of the most impressive examples of art direction I can recall coming across.

The sound work is also very well done. Playing this game at night with the lights out is a very creepy experience. You can hear the enemies moving around, whistling and talking to themselves, and singing horrifying little songs. The sound travels quite a ways, so you'll almost always hear them well before you see them. This leads to some pretty exciting hide-and-seek early in the game when you're not very heavily armed and can't afford to just blunder into enemies and rely on firepower to extricate you.

Sadly, things are not going well in Rapture. Genetic engineering has run amok, and most of the population is either dead, or wandering around in a homicidal daze. Brainwashed little girls with awesome cyborg protectors wander about, harvesting stem cells from the recently deceased. Genetic modifications and heavy weaponry are freely available from vending machines.

This is good, because you'll need all the help you can get to make it through alive. Enemies in Bioshock are fast, strong, and very, very clever. Enemies in Bioshock dodge and use cover better than a lot of humans I play Halo against.

Happily, you have a truly enormous array of options for taking them down. You can, for example, set them on fire, let them run into a nearby pool of water to put the fire out, and then throw a lightning bolt into the water to kill them. You can freeze them solid and shatter them with your wrench. You can even hack into the security systems and get robotic turrets and flying drones to kill them for you. Much of the environment is also responsive to your power. Setting pools of oil on fire, for example, is a great way to defend against killer bees.

The game itself, however, is pretty linear. The levels are large, and full of all sorts of secret caches of money and ammo. Unfortunately, most of it doesn't really turn out to be all that necessary and later in the game it was only obsessive completionism that kept me exploring because most of what I found, I didn't have room in my inventory for anyway.

You only have enough slots for about half the available upgrades, so you do have to pick and choose. It's only early in the game when you've only got two or three slots to use that this really feels constraining. By the later game, you can equip most of what you want without trouble. The hacking minigame, while fun, is also pretty simplistic, and the penalties for failing a hack are easily avoided, so it's really a test of persistence more than skill. I will say that setting a flotilla of hacked security robots against your enemies is VERY entertaining.

Taken as a whole, Bioshock is an amazing experience of a game. The story is interesting and quite skillfully presented, both through cutscenes and through audio diaries that you find scattered about the city. It's a beautiful game to look at and wander around through, and trying to survive the onslaught of enemies will get even the most jaded heart pounding. The combat is smooth and without niggle.

In the end though, it IS a pretty standard FPS. While the storytelling, visual style, and character upgrading mechanics draw heavily from RPG influence, you don't really have much choice about how you proceed through the game. The only way to get to your objective is over a pile of bodies. You have a certain amount of control over the condition of the bodies and the size of the pile, but that's the extent of it. Because of this, one playthrough really does show you just about everything the game has to offer. I'd recommend renting it, it can be beaten in a few days if you're dedicated. If you do decide to buy, hold off for a used copy, there will be plenty of them on the shelves.

Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 11/01/07

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

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