"It was not impossible to build Rapture at the bottom of the sea, it was impossible to build it anywhere else." ~ Andrew Ryan
I love those words; they're etched firmly inside my skull along with other choice phrases and the dull echoing wallow of the Big Daddies as they thump along the ruined floors of the once mighty city: Rapture. It might sound like I'm waxing philosophical about some roleplaying game or another, but this isn't true.
I'm talking about BioShock. Irrational Games spiritual sequel to System Shock 2 and brainchild of Ken Levine, a man who should be given all the Adam in the world and allowed to run it as Ken the pumped-up Gaming God!
I've been immersed in Rapture for around 30 hours. I've explored a great deal of the city from level to level and I've discovered secrets and other places that most people might just have let slip. I've heard tell that some people can go from beginning to end in nine hours, great, but you're missing out on a lot of what the game has to offer if you do. I admit that I probably took a lot longer than the reported 20 hours that some gamers have said takes to finish it.
What I got out of it is a highly polished FPS that drips atmosphere, from the grimy and blood covered walls to the cracked panes of glass where water dribbles in trying to reclaim Rapture: a city that by all rights should not be at the bottom of the ocean where it's unwanted. BioShock is at its core first and foremost a shooter, it's not meant to be a hybrid RPG with guns and superhuman powers, it's meant to be an action shooter where you are given complete freedom to explore the current environment and even backtrack to levels you've previously visited.
The controls are a breeze, extremely simple to pick up and play. You'll be bashing Splicers (genetically altered humans) with a wrench in no time at all, throwing electro-bolts and shooting the various weapons after only a few minutes of play. It has a simple GUI and it's easy enough to see your health, Eve and ammo without having to wade through a tonne of screens in the process. There is only one way to see what tonics and plasmids you have equipped though, by visiting a Gene-Bank, a place where you can swap out your current inventory of cool additions.
Plasmids = powers in BioShock like electro bolt and inferno.
Tonics = power_ups that can change your character in many ways. Equip hacking tonics to help you overcome security systems or combat tonics to pulp your enemies with the wrench.
So with simple controls and easy to use features, BioShock lets you get on with exploring Rapture and following the game's twisted & dark plot. A lot of this plot is told via Radio transmissions and Recordings (you might remember that from earlier games like System Shock 2 etc) and you'll miss out on vital information, codes and the like if you don't try and track down all of the records.
You have several weapons to help you get the best of your enemies, the Splicers and over the course of the game all of these can be upgraded via Upgrade Stations; however you can only choose one upgrade at a time. This means you're going to have to be careful as you upgrade your arsenal. Ammo and other items, like Eve hypos can be found in crates and boxes. On dead bodies and in other places that might seem hard to reach (hint: TK is your friend).
As you battle the denizens of Rapture you'll come across security turrets, cameras and bots. The turrets, bots and cameras can be disabled with a quick zap and then hacked. The game presents hacking in a similar fashion to Pipe Dreams and although it can get a bit repetitive and annoying at times, it's still fairly fun if you like puzzles. If you don't like puzzles, Irrational have made sure you can buy out the security or you can auto-hack using a hacking tools (Deus Ex anyone?)
As I said previously there are certain Tonics that help you become a better hacker, they'll slow down the flow speed, they'll give you less overload tiles and so on. Some of them change the difficulty of the hack in question. Most electronic things in Rapture can be hacked, Vending Machines and Ammo Vending Machines included and if you want to get the better items, you'll need to hack them to do it.
You can also invent new items at U-Invent stations, hacking these decreases the item cost in parts and allows you to make more.
The whole feel of the city and the atmosphere of Rapture are echoed in the way it presents this technology. It has a very 1960's and noir taste to it, there's a forlorn decayed corruption to the place that seeps through every floorboard and around every dark corner. To this end Irrational Games have done a very slick job on the graphics, BioShock is a very sharp game that presents the underwater world in a beautifully macabre way. The Animations and model design are superb. As for the water, it's hard to explain...it has some of the most amazing water effects I've seen in a game yet.
Rapture is an Art-Deco Ayn Rand inspired nightmare that's haunted by the psychotic Splicers and patrolled by the Big Daddies, these old-style Diver suit wearing behemoths trundle around the city protecting the Little Sisters, children that were once human but human no longer. Approaching a Little Sister can get you in the worst kind of trouble imaginable thanks to these stalking protectors. I won't say much about the relationship between these two, save that it's explained as you play the game.
Rapture also thrives on Adam, the genetic material that allows you to alter your DNA and upgrade your character from a Gatherer's Garden. You can buy new plasmids, improve old ones and get more slots for your Tonics and powers. It all costs this genetic material and it's found only in the dead. Of course the Little Sisters are the only ones to be able to extract and metabolise it.
You can get Adam by either helping the Little Sisters (after killing a Big Daddy guardian) or by harvesting them. Either choice leads to rewards, the greater amount of Adam being given if you harvest. If you take on the role of a protector/saviour, then you'll be able to get more tangible rewards later on. It depends if you're comfortable with harming the Little Sisters in the first place. It will take you down one of two endings of course.
The level design in Rapture is pretty open (You can visit previous locations from a Bathysphere station); the whole city feels like it's alive. It's not just from the meticulous use of graphics and design to the detailed and highly textured environments, it's down to the fact that the Splicers never leave you alone for more than a few moments and you can clear an area of bad guys, only to find that if you wait around some more will wander in from somewhere else, giving the impression that there are hordes of these wandering psychopaths in the claustrophobic confines of this misbegotten Utopia. It's like Rapture has its own Eco-system where once in a while things will kick off, perhaps a Splicer gets too close to a Big Daddy's charge and there's a confrontation.
They might trigger a security turret or accidentally miss you and hit a window; the security recognises this as an act of Vandalism and sends out security bots to deal with the threat. There's always something going on in the city and it's interesting to backtrack sometimes from the later levels and take a look over old ground to see if a new area might have opened up that you couldn't access previously.
BioShock has some pretty decent AI, the wandering and interaction AI is something to see when you're exploring and you can often use the paranoid nature of Splicers to lure them into a trap or a confrontation with a Big Daddy. In fact it's quite fun to set up sub-traps and try and get the whole thing to play out how it does in your head, from electro-trap bolts to cyclone plasmid traps. Hack a security turret to add spice to the proceedings and watch how the AI tries to deal with it when an enraged Big Daddy chases them down.
Hack a Health station and watch as a wounded foe runs to use it, invariably dying since a hacked station causes damage to enemies. Light up a Splicer with inferno and they will run for a water source, trying in vain to douse the fire. Zap it with an electro-bolt and fry them as they cool off. In combat the AI will make use of the environment, weapons and its DNA enhanced trickery, expect some vicious boss-style battles from the Big Daddies in later levels and on the hardest difficulty settings as you run from room to room, trying to avoid a wailing, screaming angry monster from the depths.
The audio in BioShock is perfect. There are 1960's scratchy-records and a beautifully sweeping score to listen to. The voice acting is utterly top notch with the dialogue being crisp and totally in character for the time period. Listening to women being described as Betty's for instance brought a smile to my face. I never really snapped out of the suspension of disbelief and there were no times I thought that the carefully crafted audio was anything but authentic: high praise from me.
There are one or two faults that mar the overall experience. The hacking feels tacked on, it's still fun and definitely done in the Steampunk style of the game world, it does however become repetitive later on and you really wish for a bigger supply of auto-hackers (there is a certain thing to ease hacking, a lot, of turrets and bots, but that would spoil the game, so I'm not telling you how to get it).
I noticed there were some odd texture pop-in glitches at times and for 95% of the game it ran silky smooth. A couple of times it juddered a little and the whole thing ground to a shaky halt until the cause (in this case a Big Daddy) had passed on by.
That said, it shouldn't put you off the game at all and I really only have one more thing to say: Would you kindly pick up a copy and play it!
Note: If you complain that the story makes no sense, then you haven't really played the game to completion.