Review by Crofty

"Not quite the pinaccle of gaming, but still a valid effort."

“Atmospheric”, the most common buzz word used when people are asked about Bio-Shock. Of course, it most certainly is an atmospheric game, that much I can remember. You see, it's been since just before Christmas 2007 that I played Bio-Shock and completed it twice (once on normal, once on hard), and yet I find it hard to remember anything of specific superb quality. That, to me, says the game didn't offer anything particularly special, or else I would remember the experience it gave me more clearly, as I would, and do, for many of my favourite games.

That's not to say Bio-Shock is completely forgettable, because it's clearly not. It has standards of design beyond your average run-of-the-mill FPS, so there's no conflict there. However, the game doesn't display any level of performance, in various areas, that are worth pointing out as cutting-edge, or indeed, superb. As good as it is, Bio-Shock suffers from the all too dreaded “over-hype” machine. You'll read a lot of ill-informed publications dishing out absurd scores based on the novelty value, or to be the first ones to play the game and review it before anyone else, however, actually playing the game sums up how wrong people often are when it comes to the quality of videogames.

Luckily, Bio-Shock isn't the type of game that's so overhyped and overrated that the actual product is somewhat rubbish (best example being Driver 3), it's still a very worthy game to own and enjoy. It's a game that some people will believe is great, so they'll get their enjoyment even if the reviews are inaccurate, while some less fortunate gamers will get an experience much less than they expected. For me, I went into Bio-Shock with a level-head, as I often do, and wasn't playing with any high expectations at all. That was probably the best way to do it, or else my words toward the game would be far too cruel if I had taken note of the gaming media's opinions.

It's okay now, after three paragraphs I'm ready to talk about the actual game, I do apologise. Anyway, upon first playing Bio-Shock you're met with a short but potent cut-scene which takes place on a plane. Not long after the cut-scene you're stuck in the middle of the ocean swimming for your life as the plane lights up with fire, with parts of the wing and back dipping further into the black sea. In the distance is some type of tower, and it's not long before you realise that's where you need to go. This whole segment of the game displays some high performance visuals and helps ease you into what Bio-Shock is going to offer further down the line.

As you enter the tall building the lights begin to shine and you're lead to something which can only be described as a submersible lift. Once in the lift you're left to watch a short movie of a guy called Andrew Ryan telling how he despises the modern world's attitude towards the great and rich, and that he built his own city under-water in order for the said people to prosper without hindrance. The city Andrew speaks of is called Rapture, and soon after his ranting the game closes the movie and allows the player to see the underwater city with their own eyes. The introduction of Rapture is probably one of the better moments of the game, which isn't surprising with the better part of the game actually being near the starting point. Eventually, you begin to realise that the people who live in Rapture have become somewhat insane, and so it's apparent that you'll need to arm yourself if you intend to survive this hellish place for more than 2 seconds.

With a sort-of story concept at the ready, the player then gets to grips with how combat works, along with navigation and – eventually – magic use. It's possible to switch from your gun to a magic ability such as lighting which will temporarily shock an enemy; it even works with water, with a row of enemies being vulnerable to instant death if they're stood in water. Over the course of the game many magic abilities become available, and while not all are exactly enjoyable to use (some you'll tend to not use at all), it adds something to the game which balances out the otherwise average gunplay of the weapons.

As the game is set in the late 50s/early 60s, Bio-Shock adopts some realism and makes guns like the revolver and Tommy gun available to the player. I'm not disputing the authenticity of the some of the weapons, and actually welcome a change to the likes of M4s and plasma rifles; however, the combat itself feels very uninteresting. The weapons don't feel like they have much weight, and you don't get a real thrill out of gun battles against the standard deranged enemies you'll meet, with mainly the Big Daddy encounters being of the most enjoyment. The ability to upgrade weapons, and use magic abilities helps the combat from becoming unbearably boring.

It doesn't help that Bio-Shock encourages free exploration not soon after the first level of the game. The game makes use of re-spawning for enemies, so as you're navigating about the environments (which, while initially absorbing, become repetitive with the same re-used style) you'll often run into enemies which become more of a chore to fight than fun. The game automatically enables auto-aim when you first play, naturally I switched such a patronising function off, but I have a suspicion it's in there to help get rid of annoying re-spawns faster.

The Vita-Chambers are also semi-patronising, allowing the player to resurrect, with a portion of health, anytime after being defeated in combat. The enemies, however, retain the same damage you dealt to them last-time, so it's pretty much possible to spam the Chambers until the enemy finally runs out of health, therefore not really forcing the player to get better at the game during the process. You can, like auto-aim, turn off the Vita Chambers via the options menu, but really, 2K Games should have done a better job here.

The problem with Bio-Shock is that all the good things get old really quick, and the atmosphere all but evaporates when you can explore maps for yourself. It might sound better for a game to be less-linear, but I honestly think the linear layout of the opening level better defined how the game's atmosphere could genuinely make you scared, and would help to make encounters less frequent and therefore more enjoyable. The actual exploration is fun at first, as like me you'll want to check every room and every corner to see if you missed anything, but you'll find that ‘jumping out of your seat' moments are few and far between when you can go anywhere. And like I said, re-spawns make inevitable back-tracking a chore.

It's not like the AI helps to make fighting more fun, as usually they just strafe from side to side, only displaying minor intelligence once they run low on health, and begin running to the nearest first-aid machine. It's a good job the Little Sister/Big Daddy encounters keep things fresh. It's here where the game offers some form of morality in the player, as the Little Sisters all carry a rather nasty parasite inside them, unfortunately for them, this parasite is of particular value and can be used to buy upgrades for your health, magic, magic abilities and extra slots for magic abilities. If you can manage to overpower the Big Daddy which defends them, you'll be given the option to either retrieve the parasite from inside them, or offering to set them free. Do the former, and you'll be able to reap the rewards of extra power, thus making the game easier; do the latter, and you'll have the gratitude of the Little Sisters and have a halo above your head... well not the halo bit, but you get what I mean. Either way, doing one or the other affects the type of ending you see, so there's definitely some incentive to play through the game a couple of times to see the different outcomes.

Speaking of which, while it's been a good while since I last played, I do recall Bio-Shock lasting a fair amount of time on a single playthrough. I don't know the specifics, but 14+ hours seems accurate, which to me says the game is one of the few out there to actually offer an experience which semi-warrants the asking price. It makes sense for it to last longer than most FPS games anyway, as with the RPG-like elements of weapon upgrade and magic abilities it's not the type of game that would benefit from a short experience. Unfortunately, as is the norm, there'll have been cries for multiplayer in this game, and so I'm fully expecting a shorter single-player experience in the inevitable Bio-Shock 2. I'd recommend enjoying the fruits of a long lasting experience, while you can.

As you'd expect from my description of the game's first playable section, the storyline plays a heavy role in Bio-Shock. Again, like most things, this aspect initially looks very promising, with use of some clever writing and intriguing characters. I'll admit that the general story does surpass a lot of the drivel in games these days, but Bio-Shock honestly isn't the pinnacle of videogame story-telling that so many believe. It isn't the best example of how a game's story can rival that of films; I can think of over a dozen games that have a more sophisticated plot than Bio-Shock. However, it's still a worthwhile story with plenty of depth, and adds to the game's value greatly. The excellent use of music keeps the tone just about right too, with music and sounds you'd expect to hear if you somehow ended up in an underwater city back in 1960. The characters speak realistically for that era as well, which is an area 2K could have easily botched up with typical modern American accents for all of the characters, so kudos for that.

Despite all the features that start off looking promising and then turning out rather, well, not special, there is one thing that remains somewhat polished throughout, and that's the technical performance of the game. Even though the environments do become all too familiar after a while, the visual quality remains impressive constantly. There are a few texture-build issues here and there, though they can be overlooked for the most part. No amount of enemies on screen or explosions cause noticeable slow-down either, with everything looking and running like it should. It's a good effort for a Next-Gen game, and even with minor niggles, it's a better example of how a 360/PC game should look in this day and age. The occurrence of pop-up, framerate issues, and tearing is all too common for my tastes, so I'm glad Bio-Shock doesn't suffer from any of this.

Essentially, Bio-Shock is a solid gaming experience. It shows you what FPS games are capable of on current technology, but offers the player an experience more than mere shooting. The Role Playing-like elements of magic use and ability upgrading keep the game from becoming too simple and average, all the while with a storyline offering the player plenty of incentive to continue playing.

It's not cutting-edge gaming, nor is it dreadfully shallow. It's a good game, simply put.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 05/05/08

Game Release: BioShock (EU, 08/24/07)

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