GAMING GREATS: BioShock (2007)

We pay a visit to the underwater city of Rapture in this action-horror masterpiece.

Who made it?: 2K Boston/Irrational Games, 2K Australia (Developers), 2K Games (Publisher).

Platform: Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Mac OS X, iPad iOS.

Format: DVD, Blu-ray, Digital Download.

Released: August 24, 2007 (Windows, Xbox 360), October 17, 2008 (PS3), October 7, 2009 (OS X), August 27, 2014 (iOS).

You are a passenger on a plane going to a destination that is never specified. Suddenly, you crash near a lighthouse in the middle of the sea. As the lighthouse is the only available refuge from the wreckage, you have no choice but to enter. A huge monument hovers inside the structure. At the same time, a cryptic yet charismatic voice leads you to a pod that gives you a grand tour of the beautiful underwater city of Rapture. As you enter, you feel that something horrible has happened to this seemingly Utopian settlement.

These first ten-minutes of BioShock will likely be etched in my mind as one of the most startling yet breathtaking moments I’ve seen in a game. BioShock is with little doubt one of the best titles to come out of the seventh generation. Appearing in 2007 (arguably the best year in gaming ever), it is an incredibly atmospheric, action-packed and at times unnerving journey through a world destroyed by its own promise of freedom.

Set in 1960, you are a man named Jack, whose plane crashed near a terminus that leads to Rapture, an underwater city built by a rich and powerful businessman called Andrew Ryan. The city was meant to be a paradise free from the clutches of government rule. This freedom, however, was short-lived as the discovery of ADAM, a substance that grants superpowers, is abused and exploited by power-hungry criminals – mainly by a gangster named Frank Fontaine – causing chaos and bringing Rapture to ruin. Jack must find a way to escape this hell, encountering insane ADAM-addicted citizens called “Splicers,” gathering ADAM from the genetically-enhanced “Little Sisters,” and fighting their big, imposing protectors “Big Daddies.” He also learns the truth of what happened to the once-dreamlike city.

The most striking aspect of BioShock is definitely its visuals. A hybrid of realistic and cartoony aesthetics, the game has aged incredibly well and it still looks gorgeous to this day. The first time you lay eyes on Rapture, you are just in awe at how beautiful it is. The inside of the city is also thematically-pleasing, boasting era-appropriate props and soundbites that really make it feel like its set in the 60s. Going with a more open-ended level layout, you have a good amount of options in terms of approach. It rarely gets tiring to go back to the same place since the title’s unique style creates an incredibly foreboding atmosphere, and the progression rarely feels repetitive since there are always alternatives available for each path.

Rapture looks like utter crap from the inside and there are many detailed designs and set-pieces that give you an idea of what horrors happened before you arrived. Gameplay consist of guns, super-powered combat and character upgrading, with the currency being money (guns, health) and ADAM (powers). Before most first-person shooters adapted the disposable two guns only mechanic and regenerating health that is still prevalent today, BioShock allowed you to carry up to seven very-customisable weapons and doesn’t do the latter, making the combat more relentless, strategic and open-ended. It’s also a nice bonus that you could visually see the upgrade on the guns themselves. The powers, called “Plasmids,” are the definite highlights of the combat. It’s very satisfying to use them to incapacitate enemies and gain the upper hand, and their presence makes full sense in the story as the ADAM that creates them is the major cause of Rapture’s downfall. These abilities are also cleverly utilised to get through areas that were closed off before and creating an environmental chain reaction, e.g. setting fire to a pool of petrol or hypnotising a Big Daddy to fight for you (that can wipe out a horde of Splicers in one go).

With the enemies, there is a nice variety for each Splicer, and each type has specific traits that make you think about how to kill them. Going against the mascot of the game, the Big Daddy, results in very intense showdowns that will really test your strategic competence with guns and powers, especially if there are other Splicers in the area and in higher difficulties. The AI, while not as advanced as the ones in the sequel and BioShock Infinite, are responsive enough to be a challenge to you, even if they sometimes don’t react intelligently to your actions. Regardless of difficulty, the checkpoint system via Vita-Chambers can be exploited to wear down tougher enemies like bosses since they will not recover their health if you died and came back from the Vita-Chamber. It does decrease frustration but it also takes away from the immersion since it makes dying inconsequential

Coming from the twisted yet brilliant mind of writer and director Ken Levine, BioShock’s story is an enjoyably thematic, mind-twisting and sometimes confusing tale with heavy political and philosophical commentary. While it is told via monologues and characterisation, the levels themselves also help with telling the narrative, through recordings and visual cues found throughout the entire city, which adds another level in its already immersive feel. The first part of the game is easily the better half since it is where the story carries an intrigue that keeps the player guessing what is really happening. The second half, however, is the typical chase the villain scenario, and while it’s not bad, it does lose what the previous half was building up to. The progression goes by the player’s morality, where you can decide whether you should save or harvest a Little Sister to gain a huge amount of ADAM, and these two choices results in two different endings. This is probably the story’s biggest detriment since the differences are superficial rather than actually affecting the tale itself, making the payoff a bit of a let-down considering what you’ve been through. Also, the by-the-books final boss fight before the ending is a giant disappointment.

While not a scary game per se, BioShock succeeds in immersing the player in a well-realised, atmospheric and downright claustrophobic setting full of political and moral dilemmas. Those first unforgettable ten minutes is enough of an encouragement to explore and investigate the lovingly designed city of Rapture. It’s unique and downright beautiful visuals still holds up today and the gameplay, while unorthodox now in comparison to other FPS titles, still has more depth than its newer contemporaries in the genre. It does stumble in the story department and the moral alignment doesn’t have a satisfying payoff but the game’s themes and mythology is fascinating enough to be fully engrossing as intended by Levine’s ambitious creation. So, kindly do yourself a favour and check BioShock out.

Useless Trivia

(Via Wikipedia)
  • The game is considered a spiritual successor to the System Shock series, which many of Irrational’s team including Levine had worked on previously.
  • BioShock contains both licensed music and an original score. The licensed music from the 1940s and 1950s can be heard playing on phonograph throughout Rapture. In total, 30 licensed songs can be heard throughout the game. The original score was composed by Garry Schyman. He works his pieces to mesh well with the chosen licensed music as to keep the same feel, while also trying to bring out something that was “eerie, frightening and at times beautiful” to mesh well with Rapture’s environments.
  • In February 2011 the Smithsonian Institution announced it would be holding an exhibit dedicated to the art of video games. Several games were chosen initially and the public could vote for which games they felt deserved to be displayed via a poll on the exhibit’s website. BioShock was considered a front runner to be displayed because of its status as a game that demonstrated how artistic the medium can be.

R.G. Villanueva

Contributing game and film writer for SquabbleBox. Occasional DJ and instrumentalist, amateur programmer, all-around lazy guy.

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