Explore a darkly beautiful city hidden at the bottom of the ocean.
PC Release: August 21, 2007
By Ian Coppock
Reviewing a game you hate is easy, because you accrue all manner of complaints and then hurl them into a cohesive pile. Reviewing a game that you love? Hard. Not because I love it and want to shield it from harm, but because it’s difficult to convey the primal joy of playing a game like BioShock. It’s one of those things that’s so awesome, only people who’ve played it can really be “in the know”. But, I don’t believe in cliques and I like to think I review for everyone. BioShock is also a magnum opus and one of the greatest video games of all time, so I want to do anything in my power to convince you to play it. I am its all but literal cheerleader.
BioShock is a first-person shooter, ironic given my railings against that genre. You are Jack, a man traveling across the Atlantic in 1960, whose passenger jet crashes into the ocean and leaves you its sole survivor.
Alone against the sea, Jack spots a nearby lighthouse, swims to it, and enters. What he finds inside is a miracle… or is it?
With Bobby Darin’s Beyond the Sea playing faintly in the background, I entered the submersible and was presented with an intro that, to this day, makes me shake my head in amazement.
The sub takes Jack to Rapture, a glimmering underwater metropolis. As explained in a short video in the sub ride down, the city was founded to escape the tyranny of law and government, and be a place where mankind could fulfill his potential unfettered by the small and the morally conscious.
Though the city appears pristine and sexy from the outside, it’s anything but on the inside. Jack arrives to the city’s welcome center to find its lavish interior in shambles. Lights are out, doors are broken, and strange people are scuttling around in the shadows.
And this happened.
Jack is saved by Atlas, an Irishman who guides the new arrival via radio. Atlas explains that Rapture was felled months ago by a genetic wonder drug called Plasmids. These drugs, created from strange chemicals found in sea slugs, granted whoever used them superhuman powers… but at a terrible price. Plasmids splice into a user’s DNA, and using too much of them renders him or her a shivering, screeching maniac. This knowledge wasn’t widespread until long after the trend had picked up in Rapture, and now the once great metropolis is a dark dystopia, crawling with the appropriately named splicers.
As Jack, it’s your job to form an alliance with Atlas. If you can help him rescue his family, he’ll get all of you out of the city alive. Easier said than done, as the journey to do so is complicated by leaks, lunatics and occasional jumps.
If Jack hopes to make it out of Rapture alive, he has to splice himself up. He wields pistols, rifles, shotguns and other conventional weapons in his right hand, and a variety of superpowers in his left. The Plasmids you find grant you a wide variety of powers, including telekenesis and blasting electricity from your fingertips. The two categories make for innumerable useful combinations.
Plasmids come with a price, though, In addition to the chance he might become a splicer, Jack needs a chemical called ADAM to multiply his powers. That particular substance is found only with what is assuredly the most bizarre pair of characters in gaming: the Little Sisters and the Big Daddies. The Little Sisters are brainwashed girls trained to gather ADAM from splicer corpses, while the Big Daddies are huge, heavily armored brutes that protect the Sisters from would-be splicers, such as yourself. If you can fell the beast, you must choose whether to spare the girl and get less ADAM, or lethally rip more of it out of her stomach and kill her. This is BioShock‘s morality system, and it does affect the game ending you get.
The more ADAM you gather, the more powers you can buy and upgrade, making BioShock significantly easier. The gameplay has that pleasant Half-Life quality of being simple and easy to pick up, minus a few kinks.
Jack can wield Plasmids or guns, but not both, which can make hard combat sequences frustrating. This problem was nixed in BioShock 2 and BioShock Infinite, but it seemed like an obvious innovation to miss, especially in comparison to the rest of the game’s awesomeness.
BioShock isn’t amazing just because of convenient gunplay, though. The gem of the game and indeed the genre is the story. Though you’re a silent protagonist, the characters you meet in this game are the most complicated, multifaceted people I’ve ever seen in a video game. Atlas, your guide, is torn between remaining decent in an indecent town or succumbing to the same harshness that claimed it. Brigid Tenanbaum, the creator and tormentor of the Little Sisters, has grown a conscience and is now desperately seeking to undo her work and repair the lives she destroyed. Backing up these intense profiles is some stellar voice acting, ripe with emotion and indecision. Needless to say, the game’s writing and pacing is spot-on.
But the most complicated and interesting of BioShock‘s characters by far is Andrew Ryan. Ryan is a brilliant businessman and the founder of Rapture, who left the surface world after the nuclear bombs were dropped at the end of World War II. Convinced that the world above has doomed itself to oblivion, Ryan sought to create a paradise where the world’s best and brightest could achieve their potential free of government and moral reprisal. He founded Rapture with few, if any, laws, allowing businesses to make incredible profits and scientists to conduct questionable experiments (such as with Plasmids). Ryan is convinced that there’s more to Jack’s presence than a tragic plane accident, and is determined to destroy you.
Of all the hundreds of antagonists, baddies and big bosses I’ve contended with over the years, Ryan is the one that I didn’t even hate to love. He takes his philosophy to some unacceptable extremes, but said philosophy is hardly rooted in evil. His fears that mankind will annihilate itself and that human beings must be given a chance to achieve their potential definitely have some merit.
For most of the game, he will occasionally radio you with his argumentative points, trying to get you to turn around or renounce what you’re doing in Rapture. Most of the time, I was compelled to listen. BioShock is the only game I’ve played that so relentlessly hits you with complex, engaging philosophical and ethical questions. Ryan is a fascinating and my favorite video game character, whose presence in BioShock is akin to a breakout performance in a TV show.
Hand-in-hand with an amazing character roster is BioShock‘s atmosphere. Just as Andrew Ryan is my favorite character, Rapture is my favorite video game location. The city is built in a classic art-deco style, and is beautiful to stare at. Every room, closet, and staircase in this visual feast is minutely detailed.
The city combines its opaque gorgeousness with a haunting atmosphere that sucks you in like you would not believe. Jack is left to explore this amazing felled city pretty much alone, and the sound design is a constant reminder. You can hear the ocean just outside the city’s sprawling underwater vistas, and dozens of sounds echoing nearby and far away. It’s an atmosphere that seems creepy and foreign but at the same time is comforting, in the same way as watching a rainstorm from inside a warm house.
Filled with millions of colors and sounds, Rapture will draw you in. It just will, The level design is competent, agilely combining large hub areas with tight corridors and small but heavily decorated rooms. The music is haunting, combining high-pitched waves of violin strings with low bass, capturing the beauty of the city as well as the tragedy of its fall.
It may have occurred to you that I’ve reviewed other games that had all of these great elements in play. What makes BioShock so special? Never before or since I first played this game two years ago have I seen a game that combines all the elements I’ve talked about as well as Bioshock does.
Despite a few minor gameplay problems, the game unites its atmosphere, story, music, artwork, level design and gameplay into a seamless, fluid narrative. The story encompasses themes of greatness, of tragedy, and redemption. It’s a beautiful story, and an amazing video game. Go get it; don’t pay too much, but even if you do, you’ll get your money’s worth.
You can buy BioShock here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.