BioShock Review (Xbox 360)

You’re probably all too familiar with the hype surrounding this game, and if you haven’t bought it already, I’m guessing you’re either harboring some healthy skepticism or are simply penny-wise. But during the many hours spent playing this game, I can assure you that this skeptic was truly riveted by its well-told story and the superbly crafted city of Rapture.

It’s not only till you pull yourself away from Bioshock do you appreciate what it manages to do so well – completely immerse you in its vivid atmosphere. Through seamless gameplay and an extremely cohesive overall structure, Bioshock draws the player into a surreal and living world, while not leaving them with the feeling that all the cool bits were bells and whistles simply tacked on to enhance the experience. It’s a perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

The entire experience is driven by an immaculately choreographed plot, bringing characters, information and events into your awareness with precise timing. From the moment you clamber into the fallen utopia of Rapture, you find yourself constantly asking, “What the hell happened here?” while picking your way through the debris and blood. Radio transmissions, which pretty much guide your path through Rapture, provide you with enough information to only keep you guessing as to how and why you ended up in this mess.

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Rapture’s steampunk vibe, with advanced technology running through the veins of its art-deco architecture, makes it a place that will captivate both casual and hardcore gamers alike. Oozing with cultural reference points that provide plenty of cohesiveness and depth, it’s a world you simply feel compelled to explore.

The fallen city was the grandiose brainchild of the industrialist Andrew Ryan, founded upon his unrelenting beliefs in the heroism of the individual. A place where the great can thrive without being held back by the weak, where there are “No Gods, No Kings, Only Men”. This warped form of objectivism set Rapture’s scientists on a quest to unlock total biological freedom. Their Holy Grail – ADAM, the precious substance that would inevitably precipitate the downfall of Rapture.

ADAM allowed Rapture’s citizens to completely rearrange their genetic makeup, and become the person they always dreamed of. However, the sheer power contained within ADAM, caused many to lose their minds and chase ADAM like crazed junkies. These pesky ‘Splicers’ are still found roaming the rubble of Rapture and will jump you at any given moment.

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To maintain a steady supply of ADAM, Ryan’s twisted scientists implanted ADAM-producing seas slugs in hoardes of Little Sisters, who are effectively brainwashed to harvest remaining ADAM from corpses. They are escorted around Rapture by their Big Daddys, clunky but mighty guards in mechanical diving suits. With their main prerogative to look after the Little Sisters, they will not attempt to pound you to bits unless you pick a fight with them. But the incentive is definitely there – taking down a Big Daddy lets you corner a Little Sister and her valuable ADAM.

Here is where Bioshock brings introduces the element of moral choice. You must choose between freeing the Little Sister from her cursed fate (for which you will receive a small quantity of ADAM), and selfishly harvesting her for all the ADAM in her body. The weight of your decisions becomes clearer as the game progresses, and lead to different story paths. While this introduces an undoubtedly fresh element, being limited to a simple binary decision means that the courses the plot can take remain fairly linear.

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But as soon as you get your first taste of ADAM, you are hooked. It lets you shoot bolts of lightning from your fingertips, for christsakes. Indeed, collecting and using ADAM becomes integral to your survival in Rapture, and opens up a bountiful world of character customization.

The two powerful items ADAM provides are plasmids and tonics. Plasmids, fuelled by the energy source EVE, are genetic enhancements which allow you deliver pain to opponents in some truly inventive and brutal ways – such as unleashing swarms of bees from within your skin. A personal favorite is the telekinesis plasmid (similar to Half Life 2’s gravity gun), which allows you to hurl furniture, debris, even corpses at enemies, or use them as a shield.

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While the operation of plasmids is pretty straightforward, as you amass more and confront larger packs of enemies, you learn that using combinations of plasmids lead to more effective dispatching. Setting Splicers on fire, waiting for them to run towards a pool of water and then zapping it with lightning is not only morbidly satisfying, but sometimes a winning strategy in battle. However, the plasmid and weapon switching mechanism on the 360 controller is a little unwieldy, and would be much smoother on a PC mousewheel.

Tonics are genetic modifications of a more passive nature, enhancing specific abilities of your character. There are combat tonics, engineering and physical tonics, the diversity of all 53 being testament to the depth of your character. Your unique combination of plasmids and tonics really do determine the way you approach an encounter, as your strengths and potential weaknesses are heavily shaped by their configuration. As you develop your own favored style of plasmid-assisted combat (while this may vary according to the area you are fighting in), you can shuffle your genes around at the many Gene-Swap stations in Rapture.

Bioshock’s traditional weapons pale in comparison to the power of plasmids, but they serve well as a secondary complement. I get the feeling that FPS buffs might be a little disappointed at the feel and action of the weapons, which really do not deal out as much damage as they should. However, it’s more likely an indicator of Bioshock distancing itself from being a weapon-focused FPS, with many other elements of combat more than compensating for this.

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A redeeming factor is the variety of ammo, which effectively multiplies the number of weapons you have. There are exploding buckshots for the shotgun, heat-seeking RPG’s for the grenade launcher and flammable darts for the crossbow, to name a few. The sheer amount of choice this brings into combat means that a certain degree of decision making and quick thinking becomes crucial. You also even collect odd materials to build enhancements for weapons at various U-Invent machines. While weapon building was an exciting prospect, I felt somewhat let down that it only meant you could pick from a set of pre-made accessories (depending on how many materials you have). Regardless, this keeps you on the lookout for bits and pieces within the environment.

Ammo, EVE and money scattered throughout Rapture is at just the right amount to make you constantly keep your supply levels in check. Cash operated vending machines are always nearby to stock up, and if you’re ever strapped you can wander around Rapture and search objects and corpses for supplies.

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Around Rapture you will also encounter the still-active security systems of the city – turrets and security bots that will hassle and gun you down. The beauty of these otherwise basic enemies is that by either using the right plasmid, buying them out with cash, or hacking them will turn them against your enemies. The hacking minigame (vividly reminiscent of Pipe Dreams) is perhaps the least integrated component of Bioshock, rather abruptly pulling you away from the action to a new screen. But in many instances it can also bring a sense of urgency to a combat situation.

What could be considered another blemish is that when you die, you automatically respawn nearby with a full inventory, weapons and health. With death having little gameplay consequences, survival becomes less of a driving force. But while in other games this might mean you can haphazardly bumble your way through enemies, Bioshock manages, through its wealth of weapons and genetic mods, to encourage the player to obliterate enemies with style.

Enemy AI can be predictable at times, and does not vary according to difficulty settings. ‘Harder’ Splicers simply take and inflict more damage, without any real visual indication why. Again, this can either prompt the player to use new combat techniques, or simply instill a sense of tedium. But Big Daddy’s always remain a challenge in themselves, and in combination with a handful of Splicers, your hands will be kept full.

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As mentioned earlier, the unfolding of Bioshock’s storyline is executed to perfection. Transcripts and clues guide players, but the game does its best to ensure this guidance is not too overbearing. There is a hint system which tells you exactly how to complete each task, but using it can really discourage exploration of Rapture.

Now I don’t often like telling people how to play games, but I urge anyone who plays Bioshock to refrain from blasting their way through it at ridiculous speeds. By going out of your way to explore, you will come across bits and pieces that draw you even further into the mystery of this elaborate world.

Visually, Bioshock is near perfect. HD usage is a must, and you will also be rewarded by some of the nicest water effects ever seen in a videogame. For PC gamers, its also been reported that a decent DirectX 9 box will yield an experience comparable to the 360. Probably my only disappointment with its presentation was the absence of a fully destructible environment, but I guess you can’t have it all.

As a package the game is as good as it gets, and has deservedly earned its places at the top of 2007’s gaming charts. Its innovative take on traditional combat will be most appreciated by those keen on experimentation, and a willingness to see what else the genre can offer. This is a must have for anyone who has ever touched a FPS, and will certainly imprint fine impressions amongst the casual gaming crowd too.

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