There are some things in entertainment that go unquestioned. When Spielberg and Scorsese make new films, we see them. When an unknown Van Gogh is unveiled, we reconsider getting cultured. And when the guys who made System Shock 2 announce a new game, we drop our PSPs and pay attention. What, you didn’t play System Shock 2? Go find another website. We don’t want your kind here. (The preceding dismissal does not apply to those under the age of 18, those who bought a PC after the year 2000, and convicted felons.)
Regardless of the past, the future looks bright in the upcoming BioShock, so titled to explicitly reference System Shock. This is no sequel, but one of those ‘spiritual successors,’ which means a continuation of the series’ open-ended design and evolving AI. The studio is Irrational Games, located in the unlikely town of Quincy, MA, a working-class burg that isn’t exactly a gaming mecca. (Though with Turbine and Harmonix – not to mention MIT – located mere miles away, the Boston area is becoming a development hotspot.) If Irrational doesn’t mean anything, consider the studio’s own lineage; it was formed by three members of Looking Glass Studios, the savants who created Thief and the original System Shock. These dudes have enough nerd cred to make Alf jealous.
[image1]Their latest takes place within a submerged utopia called Rapture, a virtual Atlantis full of gorgeous art deco design, from broadly scrolled woodwork to striking posters and advertisements. Well, the place isn’t quite a utopia any more. Designed as a refuge for the coveted ‘wealthy and intelligent ‘ social demographic, the joint has fallen on hard times. The idea was that Rapture would be a place where Ayn Rand would feel right at home – a society in which the individual could become what they were really destined to be.
As it turns out, a lot of that self-realization involved bio-modification, and that’s where things started to go wrong. We can’t even genetically engineer a tomato (where’s my Tomacco!?!) and these cats thought they could grow gills? Ha! The genetic catalyst used in Rapture was a material called Adam, which could enable anything from cosmetic alteration to full-blown mutation.
Since this is an Irrational game, the way Rapture’s altered inhabitants look is less significant than how they behave. The paltry amounts of remaining Adam are harvested from corpses by Little Sisters, nearly defenseless girls who are protected by Big Daddies, the large chaps in the ancient diving suits that look so good in the game’s screenshots. The Big Daddies have to fight off Splicers, agile, violent women that prey upon the Little Sisters. And we expect that many other mutants will populate Rapture when all is said and done.
What obviously sets the game apart is the way in which all these individual behavior patterns can be manipulated. Big Daddies won’t harm you unless you threaten a Little Sister, so there’s no need to go running every time one appears. And while the Splicers are aggressive, their bloodlust can be used against them. Interaction with the game’s population is like watching humans act out a macabre rock/paper/scissors.
[image2]Then there are the automatic security systems, which are half jury-rigged steampunk, half advanced response networks. Like Rapture’s population, these systems can be put to use against other characters. Many of the security systems we saw in our brief demo were quite evidently improvised, which adds a level of visual storytelling to the game.
In other words, every beat of the story might not be explicitly offered up to players. To understand how certain members of Rapture’s genetically modified community began to dominate the others and how the conflict eventually played out within the structure’s walls, players will have to observe how details such as the improvised security systems demonstrate Rapture’s quick, painful evolution.
The psychological impact of bio-modification will also be felt by the player. Modification modules called ‘plasmids’ will act as bio and skill upgrades; some will be single use, while others may be interchangeable during the game. Some will provide extra physical skills — look for several to help you deal with the omnipresent water — while others offer less tangible effects. Some plasmids, for example, might make a Big Daddy think you’re a Little Sister, which could have definite strategic advantages.
More so than even the screen-filling Big Daddies, BioShock is dominated by water. Irrational seems to be doing a magnificent job modeling water in a large variety of contexts – it pools, pours and sprays over and around the characters, all while the sea insistently pounds on Rapture’s ports. All that water is created with a version of the Unreal 3 engine that’s so heavily modified it might be unrecognizable to the staff at Epic.
So, the rundown for those who always skip to the last paragraph: BioShock has a self-contained, persistent world, awesome art and visual design, cool-looking water than actually does stuff, and a pedigree that makes purebred dogs look like mutts. That puts this first-person doozie pretty high on our watch list, though the Rapture won’t be hitting PCs and 360s until 2007.