Sorry that it's taken me so long to write up the review for the PC version of Irrational Games' Bioshock but, well… I was simply having too much fun playing it to even attempt pulling myself away to write. Sue me.
Bioshock (available at the time of this writing for the Xbox 360 as well as the PC) tells the story of Andrew Ryan and his attempt to create a utopia, called Rapture, beneath the ocean waves. Right from the game's opening moments, the player is thrust into an often confusing and frightening story of madness, ideals gone terribly wrong and outright terror.
The game's writers made no attempt to write down to the lowest common denominator (thank God), and allow Bioshock's script to unroll at it's own diabolical pace. Seeing as how the same team was responsible for the simply amazing System Shock 2 several years ago (still one of the only games that I refuse to play in a darkened room), I had nothing but lofty expectations for Irrational Games' script, and I'm happy to report that I was not altogether disappointed (although I think some elements could have been done better – more on that in a bit).
At first glance, descending in a bathysphere, Rapture looks to be a fairytale place, a literal undersea city lit with art deco neon signs, where blue whales cruise between the skyscrapers like living Zeppelins. It's only after you're dropped off in a decrepit, leaking docking bay that you can see the neglect that's ravaging the place: broken, flickering lights, constantly dripping water and the disturbing sight of unburied bodies, lying facedown in pools. Something has gone terribly, terribly wrong in Ryan's utopia, and you're trapped right in the middle if it.
As the game progresses, the story is told primarily through radio interactions with Atlas, your mysterious guide, as well as through voice-acted audio diary clips. This method of storytelling works frighteningly well, and are all professionally voice-acted. At times I almost dreaded picking up the next audio log, as I just knew that I'd be treated to some new abominable circumstance, but so compelling was the story that I could never resist.
Combat in Bioshock utilizes an array of different weapons (guns and other more exotic tools), as well as inherent mutagenic powers called Plasmids. Different plasmids can be obtained throughout the game, and give the player access to a huge variety of different powers, from lightning bolts and fireballs, to more devious skills such as the ability to create a holographic "target dummy", to hack into the many security cameras scattered throughout the sunken city, or to mesmerize the game's fearsome Big Daddies, turning them to your cause.
Turns out that you're not the only person in Rapture with access to Plasmid technology, however, so watch your back (and sides… and above you…). Some of Rapture's population, called "Splicers", have also drunk from Ryan's mutating well, and have gone mad because of it.
Ironically, it is the Splicers that become both the game's most compelling draw as well as its most glaring failure. Often, the player will come across the Splicers and can observe them before being noticed. When this happens, the player is often treated to some downright disturbing AI behavior, as madmen (and women) mutter to themselves, dance to scratchy Victrola music or even prey upon one-another. Just as in System Shock 2, themes of corrupted innocence and the terrible cost of unintended consequences are front and center to the game's story, and work very, very well to create a sense of atmospheric horror.
Unfortunately, once the Splicers become aware of the player, they almost invariably rush forward, heedless of their own mortality, right into the path of the player's Plasmid powers and guns. After a while, one learns how to easily take down these almost mindless foes with only a modicum of difficulty, which somewhat dilutes the game's overall sense of suspense. True, unexpected re-spawns in previously cleared areas do give the player an unexpected scare, but even this begins to become predictable after a time.
Technological devices can be "hacked" via a simple mini-game, or simply bought off with money (found on corpses or in cash registers – Andrew Ryan was a capitalist, after all), and provide a welcome respite from the game's relentless pace. Want to make sure that a Splicer doesn't sneak up behind you while you recon the next half-flooded hallway? Try hacking a ceiling gun turret and programming it to defend you. Or find and repair one of Rapture's flying "helicopters of doom" gun drones and set it to follow you around.
Overall we were deeply impressed with Bioshock for the PC, but do wish that the developers had made available the toolkit used in its construction – I shiver contemplating what the fan community could make from its art and building resources. Unfortunately, like many PC/Game System hybrids, such extensibility is sorely limited, and hurts the game's replay value. Still, we think that fans of the FPS genre who crave a good dose of story and fear will enjoy Bioshock, at least for the first play-through.
Game Play: 8 The Splicers, the game's primary enemy, are often disturbingly life-like, but in the end fall prey to a repetition that robs them of their ability to inspire fear. More variety in enemies would have been nice. Also, the game's reliance on Boss Battles coupled with what amounts to an "infinite lives" respawn system robs the title of what could have been its greatest source of tension. We understand the devs implemented this as a way to keep players from having to reload saved games, but it does a no better job of preserving suspension of disbelief in our opinion. Exploration, however, is suburb, often terrifying and breathtaking all in the same moment.
Graphics: 10 We did experience some strange visual artifacts, even with the very latest NVidia drivers, with Advanced Post-Processing Effects enabled, but even with them turned off the game looked fantastic. Every little detail has been lovingly rendered, from the script on a New Year's eve invitation to the confetti scattered across a table, to the eerie bending of light through Rapture's many ocean-facing windows. Bioshock is a visual treat.
Audio: 10 The game features some of the best voice acting we've ever heard. Combined with the ever-present drip and splash of water, the almost subliminal creaks and groans of the underwater city, and the distant, echoing muttering of the Splicers, Bioshock's audio engineers paint an aural picture that's every bit as compelling as its visuals.
Value: 7 The game has no multiplayer component and reply value (once you've experienced the game's very deep single-player game) comes primarily from replaying various areas utilizing different Plasmid and weapons combinations. Since almost everything in the environment can be affected by Plasmid powers (oil slicks can be set ablaze with the Incinerate power, for instance), this can be an amusing diversion, but we hope that the devs will release the SDK for the game to the fan base. User-made MODs in Rapture would be terrifying, indeed…
Curve: 8 Overall, Bioshock serves up an amazingly solid single-player experience, which serves to further up the ante defining what computer games can and should be. We wouldn't be surprised if the game is still being studied in Games Development classes for years to come.