BioShock - Review
By Rory - October 29, 2008
The halls of Rapture have been polished, but the blood remains.
Last year, gamers were introduced to the underwater "utopia" known as Rapture, in BioShock. Unfortunately, PS3 gamers have had to remain on dry land until now. The game has finally received a port to the PlayStation 3 and although it has received a few additions and improvements, it remains fundamentally the same game. Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not. BioShock offers some of the most unique gameplay and level design in any first person shooter and this port still delivers in every way. So, buckle up and get ready to... crash into the ocean.
Let's hope this place has a payphone.
Although it's been a year, BioShock still remains one of the best looking games this generation. It obviously doesn't hold up to games like Call of Duty 4 or Far Cry 2 in terms of realism, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. In a game about traversing the halls of an underwater city blasting your way through mutants and robots with giant drills for hands, a realistic approach really isn't the way to go. Instead, 2K Games has created a style all their own and it works quite well. Being set where it is, the developers were really able to let their imaginations run wild with the overall design, and everything was handled brilliantly. Things like walking through glass hallways, peering out onto the vast underwater empire really pulls you into the experience. The draw distance when looking out onto the city is pretty impressive and just getting a look at the enormous city complete with unique architecture and lit up signs really makes things come alive.
The level design is also good and does a lot to keep things fresh. BioShock could have easily gone the way of 'Doom 3'; solid gameplay and a cool idea for a setting, dragged down by repetitive level design. Instead they're able to keep things within a contained location but still change up the areas enough to keep you interested. There are residential areas, shopping centers, industrial zones- everything you'd expect to find in a real city, only now things can look a bit over the top without being flat out ridiculous.
The effects in the game are nothing short of spectacular. The fire, ice, electricity, etc. are some of the best I've ever seen and the water simply couldn't get any better. This goes without saying but in a game set in the middle of the ocean, that's a really good thing. You'll constantly find yourself purposely walking through waterfalls just to watch it cascade over the screen. The opening gameplay scene where you must swim through the water, filled with flaming wreckage, is probably one of the most beautiful segments in any game I've played. The lighting in the game is used constantly to convey certain tones and it works wonderfully for pulling you into each one. Whether it's a backdrop of creepy shadows or brilliant neon signs in the distance, the lighting really draws you into the world and makes each setting far more dynamic.
What a beautiful view! Wait...
Although there are some blemishes here and there such as lackluster character design and some weak texture work, the art style is what keeps a lot of these issues from being a real problem. The graphics are fantastic no matter how you look at it and the unique look the game has not only makes things more interesting to look at but also makes some of the minor issues more forgivable.
The PS3 port has made some slight improvements to the graphics, mostly in the form of sharper textures. Performance-wise it's also a bit better. There are some definite framerate issues to be found when engaging in fights, but they've been improved slightly and are still not a serious issue. There's also less texture pop-in but again, it still exists. It's not like Mass Effect or anything where it will take upwards of 10 seconds for all the textures to load, but little door textures and things will sometimes take a second to kick in when you first approach them. One major improvement is the 'Unlock Framerate' feature. On the Xbox 360 version, enabling this would provide you with a smoother framerate but would drag down the performance and tear the hell out of the screen. When testing it on the PS3 version, the performance hitches are down significantly and the screen tearing is now almost nonexistent. Personally I still prefer the default option as everything is more stable and has a more 'cinematic' look, but for those who prefer a smoother framerate over everything else, this option is definitely worth checking out now.
Overall, the visuals remain pretty much identical to when this game was first released. The minor improvements don't really make this a better game per se, but they certainly don't go unnoticed or unappreciated.
In a game such as this, the audio can really make or break the experience and fortunately it does just as well as the visuals at pulling you in.
The music is usually located within the world itself, providing some 1950's tunes from jukeboxes to go along with the theme. It's catchy and also makes it feel as though it was once a real city filled with people just like ourselves. Walking into an abandoned lounge with furniture scattered around and decorations from a celebration still in place with "If I Didn't Care" playing in the background really provides you with an eerie look into what used to be. There are also some original songs played when the action is at an all-time high, which are also good, but everything is mostly kept quiet. This really allows the overall ambiance to take over. Walking around the city you'll hear Splicers talking to themselves off in the distance or water rushing through a crack in the wall or even the familiar sound of the Big Daddy approaching, which is enough to stop you dead in your tracks. Things like this are what really bring Rapture to life and make you feel like anything cold be taking place around you at any given time.
Mr. Bubbles doesn't play around.
The sound effects are, for the most part, great. The gunshots all sound decent, yet a little underpowered- especially the machine gun. The shotgun is fantastic and always feels satisfying when firing off a shell into a Splicer or a Big Daddy but the rest just don't give you the same feeling. I guess it makes sense as these are not the modern day weapons we're used to hearing but still, it could be better. Everything else is top notch- from the sound of lighting or fire being discharged from your hand into an enemy to the sound of your wrench cracking a Splicer's head open. No matter how brutal or serene the sound effects may be, they're all fantastic.
Although you're mostly left in solitude, there is some voice acting that takes place, either from actual characters or from audio diaries left behind by the deceased. They all do a great job of keeping the story going and setting a specific mood. Each unique character is brought to life and given a certain attitude which is directly conveyed through their dialogue.
The story in BioShock is one of the best I've experienced in years. You play as Jack who crashes into the Atlantic Ocean during a flight and emerges as the sole survivor. You must then swim your way to the only thing you can see, which happens to be the entrance to Rapture. As you make your way deeper into the city you find that things didn't exactly go as planned. The city was initially built for those who shared the idea of creative freedom, not influenced by government and religion. Unfortunately, you find that the citizens have turned into creatures known as Splicers who have torn the city apart and will kill anyone they encounter (you). You are then greeted by a two way radio with a man named Atlas on the other end. He is one of few survivors in Rapture and agrees to help you make it out safely as long as you find and rescue his family in the process.
One reason why the story is so enjoyable is that you must figure out exactly what's happening as you go along. You only know as much as the main character does, which at the beginning is nothing. Along the way the story of what happened in Rapture is told through a series of audio diaries, which I mentioned before, and ghostly flashbacks. You'll also meet several interesting characters, some of which are your friends and most of which are your enemies. One of these characters is Andrew Ryan, the creator of Rapture and your main antagonist.
Most of the time you've got the story and game laid out right in front of you; you are good and this guy is bad. You have to make your way through the enemies and get to the bad guy. That is not at all how BioShock works. It appears to from the beginning but a series of twists and turns will change the game up dramatically every so often. BioShock offers something rare which is not just a story to go along with the gameplay (even if the story is good) but a story that is part of the overall experience.
Although BioShock is primarily a first person shooter, it has a lot more to it than most. Throughout the game you'll find different abilities in the form of tonics that offer things such as health boosts, increased damage, active camouflage, increased hacking skills, etc. Then there are the Plasmids that offer different offensive attacks that do things such as shock enemies, light them on fire, trick them into fighting against each other, etc. These are what really change up the gameplay as you'll need to take advantage of them in order to bring down harder enemies and solve minor elemental hurdles. Not only are they fun to use but they allow you to coordinate different attacks which are sometimes more effective than bullets. One example would be lighting an enemy on fire and then electrocuting him as he jumps into the water. Another typical combo would be shocking an enemy and then hitting him with a wrench for a 1-hit kill. The PS3 version offers a couple extra Plasmids. One of them is a force push style attack then sends enemies flying backwards. It's especially useful when being attacked by large groups of enemies as you can distance them from you (while dealing damage in the process) and then pick them off one by one. Another allows you to set a trap that when stepped on sends enemies flying upwards and then immediately back down to the ground, causing them to lose quite a bit of health. They're both cool but they won't single handedly change the way the game is played or anything.
You can call me Colonel Mustang.
Tonics can also be purchased at 'Gatherer's Gardens', found at certain points in each area. To purchase these you'll need to collect the substance known as ADAM. The way to get ADAM is to track down a Little Sister and either harvest or rescue them. The problem there is that each Little Sister has a Big Daddy at its side for protection. In order to get to the Little Sister, you'll need to take down the Big Daddy first which can be quite a challenge. There are two different types of Big Daddies: Bouncers, which have giant drills for hands (as I mentioned before), which they will not hesitate to drive directly into your face. The other types, called Rosies, have projectile weapons which shoot proximity mines at you. In order to take either of them down you'll need to use both Plasmids and weapons effectively. Thankfully you'll get alternative forms of ammunition later down the line, such as exploding buck for shotguns and armor piercing rounds for the pistol/machine gun which can really help take these guys down. You'll also be able to upgrade your weapons at certain points in the game to increase their damage/speed/clip size/etc. which is really helpful overall. The Splicers can get a bit tough later on so an upgraded machine gun complete with antipersonnel rounds will help take them down a bit easier.
Once you've defeated a Big Daddy, the Little Sister is at your mercy and you can then choose to do one of two things- harvest her or rescue her. Rescuing them will get you less ADAM right away but will earn you a nice bonus down the road. Harvesting them will get you significantly more ADAM but will also get you a nice scolding from Dr. Tennenbaum, the woman who watches over the Little Sisters. It's up to you to decide how you deal with all of them and choosing one over the other will change things up a bit.
When making your way through the game you'll be faced with different types of Splicers that you'll need to deal with. Some are skilled with firearms, some throw grenades, some climb around on the ceilings and drop down to attack, some can disappear and reappear to surprise you from behind, and some will just flat out run up and crack you with a pipe. They're all just as bloodthirsty but must be handled in slightly different ways. This does a good job of keeping things fresh in between main objectives and Big Daddy fights. The thing about all the different enemies in the game, however, is that they're really not your main focus when getting through the game. Like I said, BioShock isn't your typical shooter. Except for the occasional planned attacks and boss battles, most of the enemies are not in set locations. What you're trying to do most of the time is just reach your current objective, and every so often a Splicer will pop out and attack. I definitely think this was a good idea as it makes everything feel far less linear while still offering plenty of action along the way. Big Daddies are another story. There are usually 2-3 of them in each area (and trust me, you'll be able to hear/feel them coming from a mile away) and unlike the Splicers, they're really not your enemy at all. Until you attack or get too close to the Little Sisters, they'll just ignore you and push you out of the way. You'll end up having to fight a few of them every level if you want to end up with some ADAM but this makes things a bit easier and allows you to coordinate your attack beforehand.
Sorry Frank, it has to be done.
Outside of fighting and completing objectives, you'll be doing plenty of exploring, collecting, hacking and researching. There a ton of items to be found when exploring Rapture and players who feel the need to leave no stone unturned (such as myself) will be spending a lot of time veering off the set course and scrounging through different storage crates, cabinets, rooms, corpses, etc. You'll find things such as cash, food, ammo, first aid, EVE (the injection liquid which powers your Plasmids)... and of course cigarettes and alcohol. No civilized place would be complete without consumable poison. The cash in the game can be used at different vending machines to purchase everything mentioned above. Food and first aid will provide you with a health boost whereas cigarettes and alcohol will give you a health for EVE (or vice versa) compromise. Just like in real life, it's best to avoid these altogether but they can be helpful when you have an abundance of health and not much EVE, or the other way around. You'll also be collecting miscellaneous items which can be used to invent different forms of ammunition, which I mentioned before, at U-Invent stations found in each area later on.
Quite often you'll be forced to deal with a different type of enemy- electronic opposition. Whether it be security cameras, turrets or flying security bots, the only way to handle them is to hack them (or shoot them, I guess). Hacking is pulled off through a short mini-game in which you must swap out directional pipes on a grid in order to guide the flowing liquid in the right direction. If you mess up you'll either be dealt damage or trigger an alarm. If you get it right, that machine will now be working for you. The hacking takes place quite a bit and it definitely starts to get a bit tedious after a while. Fortunately the PS3's usable d-pad makes it much less of a chore this time around.
That brings me to the researching. Along the way you'll pick up a camera which can be used to research just about everything in the game, from each type of Splicer to Big Daddies to security bots to Little Sisters. All you have to do is get up close and take a good picture of them. The better it is, the more progress you'll make. You'll have to do this quite a bit for each enemy in order to fully research them. Like hacking, this does get a bit old after a while but after you've completed the research you won't have to do it any more and in turn you'll also get a nice damage bonus for that type of enemy.
Overall, BioShock offers a lot more than most first person shooters and although certain elements can eventually wear out their welcome, you're never too far from something totally new and unique. A full playthrough (doing everything there is to do) took me roughly 20 hours to complete the first time. Your average playthrough after that will typically be around 12 hours or so, which by today's standards is still very good; especially when you consider the overall diversity of the levels and gameplay. Unfortunately when playing through the game for the second time, your tonics and items will not carry over, meaning it's pretty much impossible to collect them all. Each playthrough is completely independent from one another and to a degree this does limit the replayability. This is understandable though and you'll likely still find yourself playing through this game at least once or twice more just for the sheer enjoyment of it. The game also supports trophies but I was able to get them all (with the exception of the difficulty based ones) in one run. Still it'll give you little more to do, especially if you're not actively collecting them the first time through.
Cry Little Sister!
The PS3 version offers a new difficulty setting called Survivor, which changes the game up pretty drastically. You'll take far more damage and deal a lot less of it. Cash and items will also be scarcer so you'll need to make everything count. Like the name suggests, you'll now be playing to survive. It's definitely a challenge and as I'm a fan of survival horror games, I found the concept pretty interesting. It's worth a try, at least.
The PS3 version will also be supporting some exclusive downloadable content, in the form of challenge rooms, later on. Unfortunately these are nowhere to be found right now and no release date has yet been given (as of this review, anyway). It's kind of disappointing that they didn't have these ready to go at the release of the game, but what we've heard so far sounds interesting and I'm sure when they do finally hit they'll at least be worth checking out.
BioShock is one of my favorite shooters of all time and it's rare that a game does such a good job of sucking me into its world and not letting go. When a shooter is able to go above and beyond the enjoyment of killing things and immerse you into an imaginative world where simply exploring and enjoying the overall atmosphere is half the fun, you know you've found a game worth checking out. BioShock definitely falls into that category. Now, would you kindly go pick this game up?
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