With its claustrophobic underwater corridors, broken, decrepit ’50s Art Deco style and twisted, insane denizens, BioShock‘s Rapture is without doubt one of the most immersive and evocative game environments ever created. Boasting a perfectly balanced mixture of linearity and free-roaming exploration, this vast and unique underwater metropolis is the real star of the show, acting as both an untapped treasure trove and a frightening tomb-in-waiting.
In BioShock the exploration and gameplay development takes almost as much precedence as the shooting and the masterfully-paced story. This is basically the closest thing to a modern System Shock or Deus Ex; it’s so much more than a first-person shooter that to attach such a label would do be disservice. The driving force behind Rapture and its inhabitants is ADAM – a genetic material allowing the recipient to re-write their body’s structure and gain a host of unnatural abilities. ADAM was instrumental in Rapture’s downfall; citizens spliced their genes ever more, becoming twisted in both body and mind, before tearing themselves, each other and the once-beautiful city to pieces in their efforts to cypher ever more of the precious substance.
Boring; I want to shoot some mutants in the face!
Aside from the standard weaponry such as machine gun, crossbow et al, plasmids are just as focal to taking out the legions of foes. Plasmids are biological weapons which introduce immense variety to the combat; possibly in something as simple as setting enemies alight or electrocuting water, or as flexible as turning them against one another, reducing prices on a vending machine or making security cameras less efficient. There are dozens of plasmids to be acquired and it’s unlikely they will all be attained in one play through, so potential re-plays can be approached with a very different mindset toward tackling the twisted inhabitants of Rapture.
The plot is the crux of BioShock, charting the glorious peak and subsequent demise of Rapture, its founder Andrew Ryan and a few other key inhabitants of the city. Narrative development and characterisation is all done from the first-person perspective, in a similar vein to Half Life, but the difference here is that other characters are hardly ever physically encountered, but rather communicate via a wireless receiver. Further plot depth is found in the numerous radio recordings Rapture’s fallen citizens left scattered, adding characterisation and spooky echoes of a one great fallen society.
Whilst BioShock is unequivocally a success in its storytelling, presentation and atmosphere, the combat never seems to fare as well. Splicers can move swiftly (often leaping high or teleporting) and generally take a fair amount of damage before dying, and since many weapons are not particularly accurate it can leave firefights descending into a prolonged and almost farcical case of chasing the enemy to get close enough to put a shotgun shell into them. Extra layers of depth are added in the use of plasmids and manipulating the environment, but above all BioShock is a shooter and despite its successes in other regards it’s not quite as enjoyable when it comes to the bread-and-butter combat.
You’re not the Messiah, you’re a very naughty boy.
Rapture is a vast metropolis, incorporating several areas and a variety of differing places. Areas are free-roaming, and will often require fetch-quests and/or extensive exploration to progress. City districts are intelligently designed, boasting abundant secrets and a wealth of incidental details, and respawning enemies ensure things are never be too comfortable even when seemingly safe. For the more determined gamer, literally hours could be whiled away exploring Rapture’s abandoned corners and secrets, and the gameplay takes on a very survival horror-esque feel when being hunted by or avoiding Splicers in the city’s unwelcoming dark corridors. If there is one complaint to raise at the level design it’s that toward the end of the game it starts to feel stretched out, particularly in the closing stages once the narrative ramps up and a big twist occurs, before yet another protracted section en route to the final boss. The narrative might be masterful as is much of the level design, but the pacing, unfortunately, is not.
Moral decisions rarely tend to work in games, and despite its best efforts, BioShock is no exception to this rule. Similar to the likes of Fable II and inFamous, choices you are presented with here are completely unsubtle, polarised black and white; basically boiling down to “Do you want to kill the little girl – Y/N”. Given how successful BioShock is in terms of its storytelling and characterisation, it’s a shame how ham-fisted its moral aspect is; painting the protagonist as either Marie Curie or Hitler with very little leeway in between. That the ending itself is somewhat disappointing despite which course of action the player undertook leaves a lingering and not wholly pleasant aftertaste.
Adding variety to the standard gameplay is the ability to hack security systems, including the likes of security cameras, automated rocket turrets or vending machines. This presents gameplay diversity in combating the enemy; for example, why fight Splicers when the robotic security can do so instead? Likewise, hacking vending machines or ammo dispensers via a short Pipe Mania-esque mini game reduces prices and increases combat options. That these aspects are a little undermined by the abundant dollars and ammo which permeate the city is a little moot – the point is that BioShock has considerable depth and detail for those who wish to lose themselves to it.
Do you have a can opener I can borrow?
The presentation is utterly flawless. Visually BioShock is completely unique, convincingly depicting this degraded Art Deco city with a variety of colour and imagination. Enemies are twisted and ghoulish, from the surgically-experimentative Splicers through to the dead-behind-the-eyes Little Sisters and their fearsome diving suit-wearing protectors, the Big Daddies. Animations are very smooth all around, and effects such as fire and lighting are stellar. Of particular note is the water, which looks superb and 2K Games have done a tremedous job of giving the impression of being under the ocean. Built using Unreal Engine 3, this is probably the most striking-looking first person game available, alongside Mirror’s Edge.
BioShock is a fascinating and fantastical journey worth experiencing, but one that ultimately succeeds more due to its strong narrative and unique setting rather than the flawed combat, moralistic nonsense and trudging level design. It is a milestone for videogame storytelling and undoubtedly one of the most atmospherically memorable games ever created (in no small part due to uniformly excellent voice work), and its strengths will clearly stay with the player far longer than its considerable but not overbearing weaknesses.