September 6, 2007

It’s odd to think that something so grotesque and can also be so beautiful, but that’s exactly what Bioshock is. Detailed areas that feel like real places instead of levels, enemies that interact believably with one another as well as the player, and choices that affect gameplay styles, ending scenarios, and the player’s own emotions all make Bioshock more than a pretty game; it makes it a satisfying, thought-provoking, and emotional experience.

It used to take simply great gameplay used to make great games, but Bioshock has raised the bar. Bioshock‘s performance makes it clear that to deliver on only one aspect of the video game experience is a low standard.

If Bioshock has only one defining trait, it is its tremendously immersive atmosphere. Andrew Ryan’s objectivist underwater utopia “Rapture” is horrifying because it shares a trait with our best fiction – the setting feels like a real place. Ryan was disenfranchised with democracy, communism, and religion. All those things took his accomplishments and earnings and spread them around for the masses. His magnum opus, Rapture, would be the capitalist’s dream – build your empire, hoard your profits, and retire in the best digs in town. All was working according to plan until one scientist discovered ADAM and the possibility for genetic modification that came with it. Thus war erupted, Rapture failed, and you arrive on the scene to a destroyed city, learning about its demise as you move through the city and the story.

Rapture’s Medical Pavilion is terrifying – not because it is home to a crazed doctor and multiple splicers (former citizens who have willfully altered their genetic makeup and suffered the consequences), but because it feels like a real medical area. There are treatment rooms, waiting areas, advertisements, and heartbreaking audio diaries everywhere. The Medical Pavilion is horrifying because of what it used to be and what it has become. What was once a center of healing has been transformed into a slaughterhouse whose butcher happens to work at a medical gurney and wear a surgeon’s smock. The decay of Rapture is powerful because 2K Boston (formerly Irrational Games) gives us glimpses into Rapture at its heyday via advertisements and audio diaries and looks into its downfall through radio announcements and resident behavior. And the way you deal with those residents is completely up to you.

It’s possible to kill enemies in a variety of ways. This doesn’t just mean you have a variety of weapons (although you do) or that there are two paths through a given area; it means that the player genuinely has a choice regarding how enemies are handled. If you prefer to hang back and play it safe like me then you’ve got the option of hacking the security camera and hiding in the corner while waiting for a splicer to trip the alarm and be torn to ribbons by the security bots (this approach saves on both ammunition and EVE, Bioshock‘s equivalent of mana, as well). If magic – or plasmids as Bioshock calls them – is more up your alley then you can set that enemy on fire, wait for him to run into the water to put himself out, and then shock him with electricity to kill him. You could also shoot a nearby chemical tank and cause an explosion, hack a security turret, or ignite that handy puddle of oil to incinerate your foe. Enemies in Bioshock are smart, but the environment and your wit will allow you to defeat them.

Enhancing the player’s notion of choice are the game’s Big Daddy and Little Sister pairs. Little Sisters carry ADAM – Bioshock‘s character upgrade currency – and Big Daddies protect them. The first choice available to the player is whether to engage the pair at all. Most enemies will attack the player on sight. And it makes sense due to their mental instability and the thought that you’re out to get them, but the Big Daddies are different. Their singular goal is to protect their assigned Little Sister. If you stay out of the pair’s way then neither of them will bother you. This simple concept makes the player encounters with Big Daddies markedly different from encounters with other enemies or bosses because the fight only starts when you say so (or if you accidentally clip one of them with a stray shot). Whether to engage, however, is not the only choice to be made regarding Big Daddies and Little Sisters.

If you do pick a fight and manage to win then you are faced with another choice: harvest the Little Sister’s ADAM and kill her in the process or spare her life and walk away with a thank-you and half as much character upgrade potential? The Little Sisters and your over-the-radio helper Atlas make this decision difficult. Atlas refers to the Little Sisters as monsters, and – to be fair – they do roam the halls of Rapture desecrating the dead, but Dr. Tenenbaum, their creator and protector, gives you the ability to save them and remove the parasite from their system. It’s hard to kill a little girl, especially when she struggles and cries. And that’s the point. Bioshock forces the player to feel emotion. The Little Sister is not just an enemy to be defeated. She is a little girl in a horrible situation, and you have the power to either save her life or end it. One nets you a bit more ADAM, but can you bring yourself to kill her? 2K made me care about a polygonal little girl. This, in and of itself, is not uncommon, but the little girl in question is the enemy, and they still made me care. I know she’s not real, but it doesn’t matter; Rapture and its inhabitants feel real.

Bioshock is a wonderful game. It’s immersive and creepy, and Rapture begs to be explored. There are audio diaries to find that chronicle Rapture’s descent from Objectivist paradise to blood-stained Hellhole, and much like Metroid Prime’s scan logs the experience just wouldn’t be the same without them. It’s chilling to listen to a doctor’s diaries gradually shift from normal to eccentric to insane in the span of 45 minutes, and it makes the eventual confrontation that much more visceral. You hate him, not only because he’s attacking you, but because of what you know he did to countless others.

Even if scary games or first person shooters aren’t your preferred game you owe it to yourself to try Bioshock. And look around while you’re there. Sure, there are horrible enemies waiting to gut you like a fish at every turn, but there’s also a beautiful undersea forest, a gripping narrative, and a beautiful art deco city to explore and imagine as Andrew Ryan – its builder – must have seen it in his mind before it all went to Hell and your plane crash marooned you here.

Score: 5/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.