"Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his own brow?" - Andrew Ryan
I'm sure you'll be positively shocked to know that I am about to pen yet another among many glowing Bioshock reviews that shamelessly heap mountains of praise on Irrational Games – I reject the new 2K Boston branding for the time being – but, that's exactly what I'm about to do.
Bioshock is good, maybe great, maybe eventually an all-time classic. It's far too soon to crown those latter qualities simply as a matter of principle, but the words dance at my fingertips aching to be let loose in a flood of feel-good hyperbole. Bioshock is worth its sixty dollar price tag within the first few levels, and the rest of the game is the icing on the cake if you eat cakes with nineteen layers of icing. Relax, I'm not going to spoil any plot points for you, but in the interest of objectivity I am going to offer a few points of criticism to be considered along with the carnival parade of deserved and endless praise being doled out apparently by the entire internet. But throughout the entire exercise it is important to keep in mind that this game is a sublimely fun work of seemingly unlimited creativity.
I have spent some unknown time so far with Bioshock, certainly more than fifteen hours and probably less than twenty. Truth be told, time had no meaning in Rapture, the crumbling underwater city in which the game takes place, and when creeping slowly through the tainted utopia with its denizens of excess and violence I've got better things to be doing than running a stopwatch. I have not quite completed the game, but have plumbed its twisting and deceptive depths enough to know that I'm playing something pretty remarkable. I suspected this was so within the first ten minutes as Rapture revealed itself against the murky depths, but I gave the game a few hours to really beat me over the head with its persistent excellence before concluding with some certainty that Bioshock was not going to be a game that started big and then pushed the player down a long slow slide of disappointment. I'm looking at you Doom III.
For fans of Irrational's previous critical success, System Shock 2, Bioshock will be filled with familiar mechanics and styles. Replace Psi with Plasmids, tone down the RPG elements and replace the icy-cool interiors of the Von Braun with an absolutely stunning environment of jaw-dropping art-deco detail and life, and you'll feel right at home. The parallels between the two games are many, but Bioshock offers a familiar framework both in narrative style and play elements without feeling repetitious. Remarkably, this is a more fun game to play than System Shock 2, which shouldn't be too terribly surprising considering the eight years Irrational stewed on the concept. Bioshock offers the same depth of world and uncomfortable tension but wraps it in the much tighter frame of a more traditional shooter without becoming trite.
The game does put a lot of strength into traditional firepower, and early plasmids, think of them as genetic magic, are best used in conjunction with the arsenal of weapons rather than as a primary offense. Plasmids offer some good tactical spice to the mix, but if you're expecting them to replace physical and chemical munitions, then prepare to be slightly disappointed. Fortunately the game puts a lot of alternatives at your disposal for dealing death, and something has to be said about hacking native turrets, security cameras and bots to your advantage and simply watching the relentless delivery of automated carnage. The hacking process is a straightforward mini-game that can be exciting at times but eventually becomes a little tedious considering how very very much you will be inclined to do it. The benefits of hacking are too good to resist, but the frequency with which you will be doing it might occasionally leave you wishing you were shooting at something instead.
Trust me, though, when you face-down an angry, well-armored Big Daddy protecting his Little Sister charge, you'll forget all about any hacking tedium. These battles are a centerpiece conflict of smoothly increasing difficulty available several times per level, and right into the later levels of the game when my comfort level has smoothed out against most other foes, my palms still get a little sweaty when I fire the first shot turning the behemoth's otherwise passive demeanor into that of a massive killing machine with a gun in one hand and a terrifying drill in the other. The Big Daddy may, in fact, be one of the more interesting foes offered in any shooter, most often found passively watching over the Little Sisters as they dispatch their macabre duties, their whale-like moans echoing hollowly. They are a sad character in many ways, and unlike the Splicers, which I take no shortage of pleasure in killing off, enacting violence on the Big Daddy is almost regretful. And, when you have dispatched the Little Sisters from the level, and the Big Daddys remain, mournfully searching the hallways for their tiny partners, banging on the walls and calling out for them in deep low tones, you may just feel something like sadness for them. When that happens, remind yourself that you're playing a video game and how often have you felt like that playing other games?
Victory over Big Daddy offers the central choice of the game, what to do with the Little Sister he had been protecting. Unfortunately the choice is the same every time, and tragically there aren't more moral decisions to be made with the rest of the game which generally forces you through its strict narrative. In fact, while the game does offer you the freedom to move through levels at your own pace, the story points are traditionally linear and until you hit plot point location X you won't move forward. The player has very little influence over how the story plays out, and only the repeated choice of what to do with the Little Sisters is offered to add moral free-will to the equation. Though, the game does offer an eventual concession on this point of linearity, which one can think of as the water with which to swallow down the somewhat bitter pill.
Though the first few decisions over the Little Sisters are poignant and even moving, eventually it becomes mechanical. You know what you're going to do when you get there, and you've done it enough times that you've become accustomed to the result. I find myself a little at conflict here with my expectations, a common problem for our own particular breed of hobby, having hoped for a little more of this kind of moral conflict, or at least some variety to the single repeated choice, but I'm on record as having said that increasing complexity of moral choice builds to seeming infinite complexity on the design end, so I grudgingly understand.
Besides, it's really not a point I'm terribly interested in belaboring, considering how well crafted the rest of the story is. Again, in a nod back to System Shock 2, much of the tale of Rapture's rise and fall is told through audio diaries found littered throughout the city, and characters become defined by the way others perceived them. Those still alive and sane enough to interact directly with you, moving the story forward in its present tense, become more complex as you measure their words and deeds against what others have left behind.
It's difficult to talk in detail about the story without risking giving too much away. Not surprisingly the game echoes a number of themes, building on questions of the conflict between moral absolution and the authority of man to act on his own desires. Rapture is a city in conflict not just between warring factions who seek to hold the city for their own ends, but in conflict over the question of how free is a person to act out his desires if he crafts those desires in the name of progress or art. Bioshock offers us a glimpse at paradise lost through the actions of the artist who paints in death, the surgeon who reconceives the beauty of man, the geneticist unchecked by the laws of man or nature and the entrepreneur who prizes industry and invention over empathy and charity. But, you don't have to look that deep to enjoy Bioshock. It doesn't require you to look past more than the surface story, to consider the subtleties of the story. If you turned the story off entirely, it would still be an engaging action shooter with a rich, often creepy setting.
The real hallmark of Bioshock, as with many great narrative games of the past, is its unpredictability. Let others speak endlessly on the voice acting, the mechanics of gameplay, the stunning Unreal powered engine and the technical minutia which must be atteneded, and yes this game is AAA in each of those important points, but that's not what drives me forward. For me, the unpredictable nature of enemy AI, narrative, level design and opportunity urged me on throughout. I never knew what to expect in the next room, never cynically predicted what the theme for the next level would be, never found the perfect tactic for dealing with my enemies and most important never knew precisely what secrets Rapture hid until I uncovered the last clue. It is a remarkable thing, playing a game that does not fall into the natural track of stereotype and cliché; a remarkable thing to feel like I'm enjoying a unique gaming experience and one that would not be precisely duplicated were I to play it again.
In the end, what can be said about Bioshock that hasn't already been said? Not much, and I realize that my comments serve less to inform as to reinforce. This game is outstanding, and if we're still talking about it in eight years, then color me unsurprised. If you own an Xbox 360 or a PC, then there's simply no viable excuse for not rushing out to pick up the game. It is a must-own, a system-seller, an automatic game-of-the-year candidate, and other such bite-sized, box-worthy, quotes. It's an uncommon pleasure when a company meets or exceeds the lofty expectations of a demanding fan base, so I'm happy to offer credit where credit is due. Bioshock is simply the best single player game I've played in years.