Blurring the Line: Bioshock

Forget about a good chunk of what you’ve heard about Bioshock, the spiritual descendant of the System Shock games from the same people that made them (2K Boston, formerly Irrational/Looking Glass). Forget about what the box advertises and the developers promised, forget about entering a living world complicated by moral choices and topped with profound questions. Forget everything except the fact that it’s a great shooter with an interesting story and wonderful atmosphere, because that’s pretty much what you’re going to get. The final package is ultimately shallower than one might expect, but at the end of the day Bioshock is still a shooter worth the attention of anyone who likes a little intellect with their action.

The story of Bioshock is mostly about one man’s desire to be absolutely free at any cost, and the expression of that desire in the form of the underwater city of Rapture. Built during the aftermath of the Second World War, Rapture became a haven of sorts for intellectuals, businessmen, scientists and pretty much anybody who didn’t like where their tax dollars went. Not that this is known to the player, who plays a survivor of a plane crash in the middle of the Pacific. The crash, coincidentally, is right next to an abandoned lighthouse, and after making a desperate swim towards dry ground, the player is left with no choice but to enter a mysterious bathysphere and descend to the depths of the ocean. Upon arrival at Rapture, it becomes clear that Something Has Gone Horribly Wrong ™, and the player must now contend with the city’s warped denizens in his efforts to escape.

You’re led by the nose through a radio you find in the bathysphere, and put in contact with a fellow known as Atlas, who trades you a way out in exchange for helping him rescue his family. Obviously, things don’t stay that simple, but fortunately the unfolding plot is very well presented, and otherwise predictable twists are handled with more than enough care to keep them fresh and interesting. You find out all about the backstory of Rapture and its key figures, especially its founder and head of state Andrew Ryan, and how people commercialized genetic manipulation to turn fantastic powers into something you can buy at a vending machine. The story lags in a few places, and begins to feel a bit bloated after a while, but for the most part it’s quality through and through, and its occasional stroke of brilliance can leave a player speechless.

Now with all that said, I regret to inform you that the gameplay doesn’t really take advantage of the potential depth the setting offers. Make no mistake, this is a first-person shooter through and through; almost everything in the game will be trying to kill you from the moment they see you, and while you may certainly use dozens of methods to dispatch your enemies, ultimately dispatching them is all you can really do with them. However, the game takes the usual shooter mechanics and happily gives them a dose of innovation, largely through the use of plasmids. Plasmids are the game’s take on magic/psychic powers, and they come in a variety of abilities; some are elemental attacks, such as electric shocks or pyrokinesis, while others are more creative, such as telekinesis and the ability to ‘enrage’ enemies, forcing them to attack each other.

Not to be outdone, Rapture has made its customs process an even bigger hassle than on the surface.

More conventional tools include seven weapons (eight counting a research camera, which does no direct damage but can increase the damage you do and unlock special abilities), each with three different types of ammo. Usually this means basic bullets, armor-piercing and anti-personnel rounds, but some of the weapons are more unique; the grenade launcher can use proximity mines and heat-seeking rockets, and the crossbow has trap bolts that throw out electrified tripwires. You can also hack security cameras and turrets, assuming you can get close enough to them without being spotted. Throw in weapon upgrades, character-building tonics (which grant passive abilities, such as boosted melee damage, reduced hacking difficulty and extra health from medical hypos), and environmental hazards and the end result is a substantial variety of ways the player can take down an enemy. Gene banks are stationed periodically to allow you to switch out tonics and plasmids, while health stations and various vending machines can replenish your health and supplies for cash.

Speaking of enemies, you’ll primarily be up against the citizens of Rapture, who have turned to gene splicing through plasmids. These ‘splicers’ now kill each other openly for genetic commodities: Adam, which allows for the acquisition of plasmids, and Eve, which fuels their use (MP, basically). They’ll come at you in a few different ways; some just grab the nearest pipe or blunt object and get to smashing, while others grab guns or grenades, and still others turn to plasmids to scuttle along walls and ceilings, or even teleport and throw fireballs. Some of the more mundane ones occasionally feature secondary abilities, such as electrical damage on contact or psychic control of local security. Their AI is adequate for the task, and capable of reacting in semi-complex ways; a melee splicer will retreat behind cover if you switch to a gun, run for a healing station if they’re critically wounded, and seek a source of water if they catch fire. Still, they tend to fall for a lot of the same tricks, and never seem to use some of the more potent abilities that you have access to.

There are other enemies out there, such as the simplistic security bots and turrets, but the two most noteworthy are probably the part of the game you’ve heard the most about: the Big Daddy and the Little Sister. Ignore the silly names for the moment, because they’re what makes Rapture run. The Little Sister is a little girl that’s been fused with a symbiotic parasite, which allows her to process Adam and even extract it from dead bodies. The Big Daddy is her protector, a monster in an armored diving suit that will kill anyone who attacks or gets close to the Sister. Taking one of these down, even just one of them, is often a major feat – they move a lot faster than they look, can throw you around like a rag doll, peg you from afar with a rivet gun and lay down prox mines to trap you. They absorb a ridiculous amount of punishment and, once angered, will relentlessly pursue their target until one of them is dead.

The Big Daddy/Little Sister dynamic is surprisingly well fleshed out, and an integral part of the story. Unfortunately, it’s the only part of the story where the game’s oft-mentioned morality comes into play, and it boils down to a binary choice of whether to harvest the parasite in the Sister, netting a large amount of Adam but assuredly killing her, or ‘rescue’ her, keeping her alive and gaining only half the Adam. There are no complex decisions to be made, no shades of gray to be found; harvest more than one and you’re doomed to get the bad ending, period, full stop. You could theoretically leave them alone, but the game has the annoying habit of trying to tell you to go back and deal with them, and you really have no choice as to whether you inject yourself with a few plasmids in the first place. There is a justification for this, and a rather good one, too, but the bottom line is that the whole ‘choice’ aspect of the game comes down to the same tired saint-or-sinner dichotomy available in full-fledged RPGs, and frankly most of them handle it a lot better.

A hacked security bot helps take down a machine gun splicer.

On the visual front, the game leaves little to be desired. Set design is spectacular, and the attention to detail goes a long way in telling the story; abandoned luggage and picket signs at the bathysphere dock, a doctor’s office with the Hippocratic oath written on the floor in blood (“Above all, do no harm”), a deceased family gathered around a broken television set and an empty bottle of poison on the coffee table. Each segment of Rapture you get to explore is well designed and unique in its theme – medical facilities, malls, theater districts, apartment complexes, fisheries and research labs, to name a few – and the game makes good use of color and light. At times the design can feel cramped, and you don’t get to see enough of Rapture to ever truly believe that it was home to thousands or even hundreds, but by and large the game delivers the graphical goods.

Sound is similarly praiseworthy, with excellent use of music and a well-acted cast of characters. The game makes great use of both period big band songs and its original score, with the instrumental version of “Beyond the Sea” accompanying the player’s descent to Rapture. The named denizens of the city have left a lot of their thoughts behind on audio logs, and most are generally well done, with the rare exception – Frank Fontaine, a criminal mastermind and one of Rapture’s key players, is almost unbearable from the first line. The rest of the cast, however, does very well; from the idealistic yet paranoid Andrew Ryan, to the unhinged, flamboyant actor Sander Cohen, to the guilt-ridden German scientist Bridgette Tenenbaum. Individual splicers show shreds of personality and are often interesting themselves; witness a man in a surgeon’s smock scream how he “did no harm” as he dies, or a pipe-wielding fellow sing a children’s song as he patrols, only to stop and investigate upon hearing your footsteps. Hear a Little Sister affectionately refer to her protector as “Mr. Bubbles,” cheer him on as he fights, and mourn for him when he dies.

There are issues, of course, but strictly minor ones. Help text telling you how to crouch or switch weapons keeps popping up for some reason, and the game could really benefit from a minimap of some sort (a full map is included, but is less than helpful due to its design). Splicers eventually become predictable, and even the Big Daddies begin to lose their edge once you gain some of the more powerful abilities and weapons. Vita-chambers provide instant cost-free resurrection upon death, removing any semblance of penalty from failure, and they’re all over the place so you never get sent too far away. What makes these things stand out is that they were mitigated, to varying degrees, in System Shock 2, so at times it can feel like a step back for players familiar with the title. And one of the game’s stranger moments features an escort mission that, on its face, seems largely unnecessary and should probably have been axed; you’ll know what I mean when you get to it.


Any other problem the game has boils down to a disconnect between what was promised and what was delivered. What was promised was a complex, living environment where the player’s choices would have profound impacts on both themselves and the world around them – a visual dissertation of Objectivist philosophy – inspired by Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” with a retro coat of paint. Ignoring the debate over the merits of the philosophy, what’s here is a heavily twisted version of that philosophy taken almost to parody. What’s here is, regrettably, just another sci-fi “choke on your hubris i-i-i-insect” shooter story, albeit a well-written and atmospheric one.

Minor complaints aside, Bioshock is taut, yet lengthy actioner that’s a bit more than just a pretty face. A particularly deft FPS veteran can squeak through in about fifteen hours, though around twenty seems be to closer to the average; either is longer than most shooters to date have offered, and somehow even the parts that seem tacked-on in hindsight don’t feel that way when you’re playing them. The combat is fun, the story is memorable, and anyone with a 360 or a reasonably powerful PC, who isn’t completely turned off by the FPS genre, would be well served taking a trip beyond the sea.

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