Reviewed by Carl Lyon
The Big Daddy crumpled to the ground, his diving suit charred from the battering I had given him with my Incinerate plasmid. I turned towards the Little Sister he had been guarding, eager to reap what precious Adam that I could from her. She huddled next to the still-smoldering corpse of her monstrous chaperone, wailing in fright and confusion. ?Mr. Bubbles,? she cried, ?please get up!? I took a step towards her, ready to do what I had to...when guilt stopped me in my tracks.
I was no longer staring at a collection of polygons and textures, but at a terrified child who had just lost her only friend, her partner in symbiosis. In spite of her outward appearances, with her eyes glowing a sickly yellow as she drew blood from the countless corpses of Rapture, she was still just a child, one brainwashed and medically butchered into her position in the Great Chain. I held her aloft, her initial reaction one of fear giving way to sleepy acceptance as my veins glowed with the gift of her Adam, leaving me swollen with the means to purchase new abilities, and her back as a normal child, thanking me before she scurried away into the waterlogged tunnels of our shared prison.
It was with this simple interaction that Bioshock defined itself for me, not only as a game, but as a work of philosophical art. For a first-person shooter to invite the player to contemplate their navel as well as the hardware in their hands is a triumph of the form. Even more brilliant is how powerfully it does it, with a slick storytelling style told through audio diaries and visual cues that more suggests than tells, letting the player fill in the gaps and discover the truth, as opposed to having it spoon-fed to them.
The story itself concerns the underwater utopia of Rapture, the aquatic haven created by one Andrew Ryan, a Howard Hughes-like millionaire whose dream of a society based completely on free enterprise is literally bursting at the seams. Your character, Jack, stumbles upon the entrance to Rapture after surviving a plane crash in the ocean, and is drawn immediately into the conflict that has torn Rapture apart: a civil war between Ryan and a man named Atlas (one of a few Ayn Rand nods in the game) over Adam, a concoction of pure stem cells that allow the user to make drastic changes to themselves.
Adam is really only one part of three that the player uses during the almost 20 hours of Bioshock; Adam, Eve, and Plasmids. When boiled down to its base concepts, this trio is the scientific equivalent of an RPG?s magic system: Adam is experience points, Eve is like mana, and Plasmids are the ?spells? themselves. The Plasmids are incredibly crucial to the game?s open-ended design, allowing for near countless ways for the character to progress through the game. For example, one could rush into a crowd with guns blazing, or they could use an electrical plasmid to zap the water the enemies stand in, or use an enrage plasmid to drive them to attack one another, leaving you to pick off the survivors. Telekinesis, stinging hornets, fire, and a freezing chill are just some of the plasmids you?ll purchase from the Gatherer?s Garden vending machines scattered across Rapture (Rapture?s free-enterprise approach carries over to almost everything: ammo, health, and other items can also be purchased from similar machines). Couple that with an impressive array of upgradable firepower and the ability to hack security bots to do your bidding (hope your Pipe Dream skills are polished) and there are countless ways for the player to defend themselves from the relentless stream of enemies, ranging from the aforementioned Big Daddies to Splicers, citizens of Rapture whose minds and bodies are twisted through Adam abuse.
Of course, it would be criminal for me not to mention the gorgeous environments of Bioshock. Rendered using Unreal Engine 3, the folks at Irrational (now 2K Boston and 2K Australia) have crafted, bar none, the most original setting for a modern video game I?ve seen. The combination of art-deco architecture (Rapture was, after all, built in the 1940?s according to the games mythos), steam punk sensibilities and rampant capitalism is wondrous, both beautiful and hideous. Peering out of the thick glass windows of Rapture reveals a swarm of neon-soaked buildings, each in various states of decay. Glass tubes that link the various hubs of the city spray seawater in from their burst seams, temporarily obscuring the player?s vision when he walks through the streams. The lighting, the textures, and the design looks fantastic on both platforms that Bioshock was designed for (PC and Xbox 360), but the higher resolutions that PCs put out lead to a slightly prettier experience for mouse-jockeys like myself?assuming you?ve got the rig to handle it.
No matter which platform you do choose, however, the quality of the game is still top-notch. I?ve never had a game challenge me with questions of identity, morals, or ideology. I?ve never had a game make me genuinely ponder the outcomes of my decisions. I?ve never had a game make me feel so insignificant, then so important, at different parts of its story. I?ve never played a game like Bioshock before, but I hope that I can play something this great again.