Review: Bioshock

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BioShock has been a long time coming to the XBox 360, and much hype has attended its progress. Such stage-setting often serves to effectively diminish the final product, a sort of “nothing could really be that good” effect. There are rare cases when a product which has been attended even by extreme media buildup can manage to nevertheless be all or nearly all that it tries to be. BioShock, pleasantly, is one of them.

The swan song of successful PC developers Irrational Games (the studio still exists, but not by that name), BioShock is on its surface a First-Person Shooter – a genre that has recently become both prolific and hackneyed on consoles. Among the game’s many successes is that while it’s a competent FPS, it defies many conventions of the genre, and indeed challenges some conventions of gaming in general.

While I’ll be trying not to spoil the plot for readers who have not yet played the game, some things can be safely revealed as they are more or less common knowledge. In 1946, an iconoclastic and visionary industrialist named Andrew Ryan set out to create a place outside the normal boundaries of society. Himself an extraordinary person (this reference is not accident), Ryan set out to create an extraordinary place: a city called Rapture. Built deep below the ocean’s surface, Rapture is in Ryan’s own words a city “where the artist need not fear the censor; where science need not be bound by petty morality; where the great would not be constrained by the small.” Ryan’s vision was exceptional, and initially he succeeded in his grand aims; yet such elevated ambitions only left further room to fall – and when players join the storyline 16 years later, Rapture has most assuredly fallen.

Party's over

The player controls a mostly-silent protagonist named Jack. One must observe carefully even to see his name on a gift label during the intro, as it is never spoken. The player’s first glimpse of the sunken city is unforgettable. Stranded in the middle of the Atlantic ocean by a plane crash, Jack takes refuge on the stone steps of a strange lighthouse. On following those steps inside, it becomes immediately apparent that there’s far more to the structure than initially meets the eye. As there’s really nowhere else to go, the player will inevitably progress down the lighthouse’s inner staircase to a bathysphere which travels to the actual city, more than 18 fathoms (that’s 108 feet) beneath the ocean surface. From there, the journey begins.

From literally the first moment players take control of the action, BioShock’s visuals are arresting. Flame effects are stark and believable; water droplets form and run convincingly. Rapture’s lighthouse stabbing into the moonlit sky is breathtaking. As you’ll find out through in-game narration, Rapture was built to look out into the ocean it inhabits, so while the city’s warrens are generally contained and corridor-like (as are many FPS environs), the vistas available therein are still captivating. Though looking out through the many windows and skylights of Rapture into the surrounding ocean scenes is totally unnecessary to the game, players would do themselves and the designers a disservice not to do so. Detailing within the more immediate atmosphere of the city is superb as well. BioShock’s visuals will inevitably be compared to Gears of War, and it’s a fair comparison to draw.

Look and wonder

Arguably even more striking than the visuals are BioShock’s music, audio effects and voice work. Best experienced on a surround-sound system, the audio component of BioShock is more adept at immersing the player than perhaps any interactive game product yet published. The statement is no exaggeration – but don’t trust this review. Play it yourself. Shortly into the game, players hear a quiet monologue from a nearby character. Without spoiling what is said or the tone, suffice it be said that this brief oration is as poignantly written and eloquently delivered as if it had come from a high-budget movie production. Such quality pervades the game’s voice-overs. Though there is some repetition, the excellence of the work makes it almost forgivable. Truly, the use of voice in BioShock works to convince the player that their enemies aren’t mere cookie-cutout cannon fodder, but thinking beings who are aware of what they have become and horrified by it. (Again, permit the lack of elaboration for sake of avoiding spoilers.)

BioShock takes other cues from the film industry. Atmospheric music is beautifully handled, alternately setting various moods and palpably evoking tension. The score is varied and high-quality throughout, but not heavy-handed enough to impinge upon the player’s sense of disbelief. Other games, like F.E.A.R, have used silver-screen scare tactics to impressive effect; BioShock bluntly puts them to shame. This game’s developers have set out to evoke fear, pity, wonder, anger and grief. Simply put, they will succeed.

...there but for the grace of God...

This is BioShock’s greatest triumph: that it defies its roots and limitations. BioShock is certainly a game, and a good (though not flawless) one; however, more than that, it’s truly an interactive story on a level that very few prior games can claim to have been. The storytelling is superlative and replete with literary references, yet doesn’t take itself so seriously as to be devoid of occasional wry humor (the prices in the vending machine of a theater come to mind). Ryan’s influence in the narrative is of course profound, but he’s by no means a simple two-dimensional megalomaniac villain, nor in fact merely a villain at all. All the characters with whom the player interacts feel realized on a level rarely seen in games, nearly never in action games or FPSs.

...come closer...

As a game itself – for it must be judged purely on this level even as we cannot fail to credit that it exceeds it – BioShock is both lengthy and robust. Though not a true RPG, BioShock does afford numerous character customization options as its tale unfolds, and benefits are apparent for each choice the player makes. There’s also a moral dilemma, or at least decision, presented repeatedly to the player – this will affect the game’s ending, based on player input. There are a broad variety of enemies to fight, and no few of them could fairly be considered boss-fights, as the primary opponents are both bigger and definitely more powerful than the average enemy. More human boss-level characters are present as well, typically at specific points in the story. Here again, expect significant tugging at your heartstrings in some cases.

Do you see the monster?

There are flaws in the presentation, to be sure – one common complaint is that the player can’t see their own feet and legs. It is odd, given the visual detailing elsewhere, but surely forgivable in light of the overall presentation. This is illustrative of the game as a whole; in gestalt, it is immensely well-presented and satisfying, its few foibles thoroughly venial. It can be said summatively of BioShock that it raises standards in game creation; it demonstrates that a game world can be as immersive and captivating as that of a well-crafted movie or skillfully written book. In a way BioShock takes its place with the classics of fantasy and science fiction in that it successfully assays one of the primal jobs of such works: the creation of a believable world. In this way BioShock defines and illuminates the path of things to come.

It is difficult to imagine another product as game of the year.

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