Are you a man or a slave?
Do you keep what you make, or does someone take it from you? Government, religion, regulation, morality... these are all just tools that hold back the true potential of mankind. Imagine a place where these elements don't exist. A place where you can pursue science, art, and industry without the naysayers trying to tear you down. Rapture was built as an underwater eden; a place where the elite could elevate themselves above the common man and accomplish the impossible. Though they might have to sacrifice their humanity to attain it.
[image1]Years ago, I reviewed a first person shooter & RPG that is still one of the best PC games of all time, System Shock 2. Back then, it was rare for an FPS game to be much more than a run and gun affair. Even now, genre bending from the first person perspective doesn't happen as often as some of us would like. Bioshock, a “spiritual” successor to System Shock, shows the amazing things you can do by blending the FPS formula with puzzle, adventure, and RPG elements.
Very few games can be said to have an ethos, or moral element, that both defines and guides the storyline. The same cannot be said of Bioshock, whose capitalistic underpinnings and anti-regulatory rants would make Ayn Rand proud. Industrialist Andrew Ryan (think Citizen Kane without the mourning of a lost childhood) built the underwater city of Rapture to create a truly capitalist civilization where what the market wants, the market gets, no questions asked. With any true belief, unexpected issues will always arise to challenge the vision. As the storyline progresses through radio interactions and diary entries, the player will be consumed by the world of Rapture. Ideas will get perverted, men will hunger for power, and human nature will be tested.
Didn't know that video games could do that, did you?
Bioshock is a piece of art, no matter what Roger Ebert says, and the visual design of Rapture is the most obvious element. The water effects alone are worth staring at, but the architecture is truly a sight to behold. The underwater city of Rapture is an art deco masterpiece in badly need of repair. It's like touring the sunken ruins of the first half of the twentieth century. I would love to play the game in Rapture before the decline, just to be able to tour the structure at its height.
[image2]Though all the hype about the game may be about the graphics and water effects, the sound team should also be winning awards. Using classic songs from the fifties and earlier, the world of Bioshock truly comes to life. From the very first moment of the game and its muzak version of “Somewhere Beyond the Sea” to seeing crazed splicers waltzing to classical music, the soundtrack both fits and enhances the mood of the game. Sound effects such as dripping water and the sporadic public service announcements over the loudspeakers make you pause to listen, but don't get too distracted or you're likely to be attacked.
In the pursuit of science, the denizens of Rapture discovered a compound called Adam that allows almost limitless genetic manipulation in human beings. To light fires with the snap of your fingers, lift objects with telekinesis or become invisible when not moving proved too compelling for the citizens, and the free market responded. Residents began using themselves as "Splicers" to see how far they could genetically “improve” themselves. These improvements, called plasmids, are your main weapons in the game. As you explore Rapture, you must modify and improve your plasmids in order to survive. You can guide your development, focusing on the specific powers that you use more often, shaping your gameplay experience. In order to do that, you need Adam.
[image3]The hitch, however, is that Adam is in limited supply and needs to be recycled from those who aren't using it anymore... i.e. the dead. Thus, the creation of the "Little Sisters" must go from corpse to corpse, removing the Adam and drinking it, prepossessing it in their bodies for future use. Then, its up to you to “harvest” the girls and get their Adam, either by saving them, or consuming them. Defending these important little girls are the poster children for Bioshock, the Big Daddies (aka Mr. Bubbles).
You'll need all the firepower you can get to take on the Big Daddies, so in addition to your plasmids, you also have an array of weapons to help you in your task and an environment that reacts to what is going on. Success in Bioshock really depends on using both the weapons and plasmids in the right environments. Shocking enemies in water, lighting oil on fire to burn them, or tossing them in the air to see where they land are some of the many ways you must move your way through the game. There are moments that you will want to replay to see what else you could do, so thankfully you can save anywhere and just about any time.
In addition to the combat, you can learn to both hack computers and research your enemies. Research is done by taking pictures of your enemies to analyze both their plasmids and their weaknesses. Similar to Dead Rising, but without the creepy “erotic” bonuses, taking pictures improves your stats and may also uncover new upgrades that are unavailable anywhere else in the game. While it does seem a little ridiculous to be setting up family portraits of Adam-crazed genetic freaks, accomplishing the research makes the game much easier as you progress.
[image4]The hacking works like the old puzzle game Pipe Dreams. Liquid is flowing through the tube and you must connect it to the other side before it fills up. Hacking lets you turn automated security to your side, pay less for health and ammo, and set traps for unsuspecting Splicers. Fun at first, hacking gets boring by the end of the game and you find yourself using the autohack tools more and more often.
In fact, despite the obvious depth of gameplay, a few of the aspects of Bioshock seem underdeveloped. First off, compared to the incredible complexity of the plasmid system, the crafting in the game feels a little thin. Second, there is no multiplayer. While its uncommon for FPS games to not have it, complaining about the lack of mulitplayer in Bioshock is like complaining about the lack of Tom Bombadil in the Lord of the Rings movies: it really doesn't affect the overall experience and let the creators focus on the plot.
Bioshock is that rare game where the plot, environment, and combat are all steps above the normal video game experience. Games at their very best, like this one, can create amazing alternative worlds for us to inhabit, doing those things we can't do in real life. This is one product the free market should be very happy to have.