The other day, fellow staff member Anthony Karge and I got to sit down for about forty minutes to play the opening of the Xbox 360 version of Bioshock, courtesy of our fine friends at 2K. Let me say this: that is not nearly enough time to fully appreciate the intricacies of a game as complex as Bioshock, but it was more than enough time to get us hooked on what seems to be one of the most in-depth and original games to be released this year.
Every site and magazine has a feature or preview on Bioshock, so I’ll spare you from too many repetitive details on the basics of the game. You play as a nameless protagonist flying over the ocean when your plane goes down. Fortunately, the plane crashes near Rapture, the attempted underwater utopia of a wealthy, eccentric billionaire fed up with life on the surface. Once you find yourself below the sea, you’ll quickly realize that this utopia has gone wrong. On first glance, it seems just like the surface. However, you’ll soon see that it’s even worse. During your first moments in Rapture, you’ll witness a brutal murder. Worse, they want to kill you next.
The first thing we noticed as we played through the first level of the game is just how amazing it looked. We were literally in awe of the graphics. The flame and water effects in particular were mesmerizing. I honestly felt a little silly because I was gawking at the burning wreckage of the downed plane and not actually progressing for several moments as Technical Art Director of Bioshock, Nate Wells, watched us play. I’m sure he appreciated us admiring his work, but it was time to progress onwards.
One thing that’s clear from the screenshots is that Bioshock has a very unique look and style. The whole utopia was obviously constructed during an earlier time period, as the art style seems to hearken back to the 1950s, which is quite a refreshing change of pace from all the sci-fi, futuristic environments that other games seem to be putting gamers into with every opportunity. One thing that isn’t so clear is that adventure and exploration are a huge part of the package. Yeah, you will be shooting people and using special genetic powers to kill lots of things that want to kill you, but we were assured by Wells that we will be spending a lot of time wandering around and actually exploring this brilliant underwater utopia that the folks at Irrational have built for us.
The storyline is relatively simple. Rapture is being torn apart by a civil war of sorts and you’re caught in the middle. You literally arrive in Rapture and are caught in the crossfire. One of the most impressive things about Bioshock, one that I appreciated at least, is that it doesn’t coddle you with cutscenes or tell you how to make decisions. Instead, it leaves everything up to you, simply throwing you into the action and telling you how to figure it out. You won’t see a whole lot of cutscenes, as much of the story is told through on-screen interactions.
That doesn’t mean that you’re entirely alone. Upon arrival, you stumble across a radio and a friendly voice guides you through the chaos. The start almost reminded me of the opening of Deus Ex, where your brother greets you and then immediately you’re thrust into combat. Well, in Bioshock, your radio companion tells you where to go, and when you get there, you’re forced into combat. Fighting happens at a regular pace, but you’re also encouraged to explore.
When fighting, you’ll not only have access to traditional weapons (we saw both the wrench and the pistol in action), but also special genetic mutations. After a comical scene where the protagonist takes a syringe that’s simply sitting on a shelf out in the open, filled with a mysterious substance, and plunges it into his arm, he becomes capable of launching special attacks. We saw an electrical attack in action that literally allowed us to shoot bolts of electricity out at our foes. Not only can you use this to stun enemies to move in for melee attacks, but you can also shoot the water enemies are standing in to electrocute them. When several enemies are in the water, this is an incredibly effective method for balancing the odds. There are 20 of these plasmid powers in all.
One of the things we were most worried about when we read about Bioshock was that the controls would be overly complex. Fortunately, the controls are incredibly streamlined and combat is a breeze. Shooting weapons is assigned to the left trigger, using powers to the right. Tapping the right and left bumpers cycles through weapons and powers respectively and holding them down pauses the game and allows you to make manual selections. Beyond that, a jump button is set to the face, but that’s about it. It’s all very convenient and allowed us to become quickly immersed in the combat.
It was clear to us that Rapture is an incredibly huge place. I honestly felt like we only saw one small corner of an incredibly huge structure. Wells was incredibly pleased with the project and we were really encouraged by his excitement towards it. I dared ask him if Bioshock will be remembered for its water effects in the way that Half-Life 2 is remembered for its physics. Wells answered with a grin, “Our physics are even better than Half-Life’s physics.”
Finally, we also got a chance to check out the hacking feature of the game. For those of you that are unaware, you can hack vending machines and medical and security stations to get bonuses. If you successfully hack a vending machine, you not only lower the price of items for sale, but also gain access to new ones. After hacking the machine, we were able to acquire some armor-piercing bullets that were sure to protect us. Wells took the lead and showed us hacking of security bots, which allowed him to gain a servant to fight and die for him that otherwise would have attacked him. Hacking medical stations not only lowers the cost (by the way, everything is paid in dollars collected off enemies) of service, but also prevents your injured foes from recovering. All the hacking is done through a neat little mini-game involving water moving through pipes.
So, you’re probably wondering: is Bioshock going to be worth my money? The answer: we’re willing to bet that it will be. Like we said, our time in Rapture was limited, so we didn’t get to fully analyze the game as much as we would have liked to, but it seemed like this was a very well polished and complete game that the designers really cared about. It’s a new and unique property that feels just that: new and unique, which is important in this day and age as we’re all bombarded by sequels and licenses. We spent a lot of time talking with Wells about System Shock 2, one of Irrational’s earlier PC games before the play test got underway, but by the end, all my questions about System Shock 2 were being replaced with questions about Bioshock. Now, we just want to get our hands on a copy of the game and play, and if our excitement is any indication, this is a game you should be able to count on being awesome.