When developer 2K games asked itself where to set their first-person shooter Bioshock, the answer was “underwater”. This spiritual successor to the System Shock games takes players on an unprecedented romp through flooding glass-walled tunnels, derelict apartment complexes, creepy shopping malls, and other abandoned mainstays of everyday life, all while feeling the crushing weight of the ocean pushing in all around, and knowing that the true malice lurks not outside the walls but in the shadows just ahead of you.
The opening scene dumps you in the ocean as the lone survivor of a plane crash. As the burning wreckage around you slowly sinks to the bottom of the ocean, you glimpse a lighthouse nearby, and swim for safety. Little do you know that the lighthouse is but an entrance that leads you, by way of bathysphere, down into the depths of the ocean and to the ruined city of Rapture.
By building Rapture, the developers chose to create a dystopian world reminiscent of the society in Ayn Rand’s magnum opus Atlas Shrugged, replete with references to mythology and Marxist motifs. This lends the game a distinct visual style, as propaganda peppers the halls and common areas of the city everywhere you turn. The graphics in the game are beautiful to look at, whether you’re gazing out of a window to examine ocean-floor-dwelling plant life or are straining your eyes for signs of movement in the dark in front of you. With the absence of any civilized life in Rapture, many of the city’s support systems are on the fritz, so light is a luxury here on the ocean floor. Conditional lighting is used to great effect throughout the game: I found the hairs on the back of my neck standing up as I was wading through a flooded morgue, when suddenly the flickering light bulb giving off the only light in the room extinguished, and in the dark I heard the sound of a body-storage drawer opening! Oftentimes your pulse is made to race because of what you don’t see instead of what’s in plain view!
The same minimalist design philosophy is found in the game’s music: namely that there is very little of it! Background sound is usually provided in the form of automated announcements over the city’s PA speaker system and occasional lounge-style Muzak. But for the majority of the play experience, sounds are provided through the environment and the mad ravings and maniacal cackling of the citizens of Rapture, once sane and now turned into mad Adam-fiending Splicers. The rumbling bass wail of Big Daddies and the innocent soft chatter of Little Sisters punctuate the sound landscape from time to time, adding an element of barely restrained malice and terror whenever you hear them.
The control of the game is standard x and y-axis shooter fare. The game encourages you to stop and take in the sights it shows you, but the layout is fairly linear, and there is rarely a reason to backtrack and revisit areas you’ve already been to. The storyline is designed to send you completely through each area as you progress through the city on your way to the next area. The only collectible comes in the form of audio diaries left behind by a number of Rapture’s one-time occupants. These audio recording give you a glimpse into what Rapture used to be, and I found myself enjoying these sections of narrative and wanting to be able to learn and explore more of the city that once was. Even though there are two different endings available based on your actions toward the Little Sisters throughout the game, I was left unimpressed with the endgame, which seemed very truncated and extremely anticlimactic after the difficulties you face to best the dangers of Rapture. I saw little reason to replay the game after a fairly thorough first play-through.
The combat of Bioshock aims to give the player much choice and adaptability (note the use of the word “aims” here; I assure you it is used on purpose!). There are two main categories of offensive options available to you: firearms and plasmids. There are a decent number of firearms available, and you’ll likely be using all of them pretty regularly. This is due to the fact that ammo is not always in high supply, and while you’ll probably not run low on ammo across the board, individual weapons will run out frequently and need to be restocked while you switch to another weapon in the meantime. Plasmids are the equivalent of magic spells or special abilities. Through the shady research conducted by some of Rapture’s top scientists, these gene-altering tonics become available in a steady stream throughout the game. There are a wide variety of plasmids, ranging from offensive types like Incinerate and Electro Bolt to diversionary tactics like Target Dummy and Hypnotize, and even Telekinesis to grab out-of-reach items. Initially, it’s a hoot to play with your different plasmids and try out combinations of plasmids and firearms. Some plasmids even interact with the environment in useful ways, such as the severe damage caused by a well-aimed Electro Bolt hurled at the puddle of water an enemy is unwittingly standing in. In my case however, I quickly got comfortable with a few plasmids and put new additions to my growing plasmids stable straight into the storage bank. This didn’t exactly cause combat to grow stale, but I don’t think it was the effect the developers had hoped for.
One thing that Bioshock can most be lauded for is atmosphere: the game is bursting with dark and twisted machinations as the web between the main story characters begins to unravel and reveal itself. A big part of this is that I found myself in constant peril throughout the adventure. There are a number of characters that are extremely powerful and difficult to best. This is where the game designers committed their biggest faux pas. In an effort to make the game more accessible, perhaps to more casual gamers, a new concept has been implemented. If your character falls in combat (meaning your health bar has been depleted completely), your spirit is brought back to the nearest Vita-Chamber and you are resurrected with a portion of your health and all items you had with you before your demise. This system acts as the game’s checkpoint system, with one big difference: any adversaries you attacked prior to death took you still retain the damage you inflicted on them. This means that it becomes economical, against the tougher foes in the game, to conserve health packs and simply shoot until you die, then run back to the battle upon your revival. Rinse and repeat until desired opponent has been felled. This quickly takes away the urgency of survival, and demolishes any need for much strategy in battle. In short, combat loses an edge, and is not as frantic as it should be in a first-person shooter. This is perhaps the biggest downfall of the game for me.
At the end of the day, even the novice-friendly combat isn’t enough to detract from the overall enjoyment of this game. The back story, told through the afore-mentioned audio logs, is compelling and left me wanting to know more about life in Rapture prior to its descent into lunacy. The intentions of the characters are as murky and indistinct as the waters of the game’s aquatic setting, and antagonist Andrew Ryan brilliantly embodies and displays the kind of sheer mad genius needed to plan and execute an undertaking like Rapture. Like a deep-sea shipwreck filled with riches of ages past, Bioshock emerges filled with an engaging story, a nail-biting atmosphere, and promises of stories yet to be told.