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Note: Review was originally published July 10, 2008

Genre: Action/ Adventure
Release Date: September 2007

On land, in the far reaches of the galaxy or even deep in Davey Jones’ locker, life just plain seems to be toughest on the nice guys in the crowd.

Ethical choices abound in BioShock,  2K Games’ magnificent tale of an underwater metropolis circa 1960 where scientific breakthroughs have enabled the populace to enjoy genetic enhancement and beef up themselves in ways only dreamed of by their grandparents.  Like the tale told in its spiritual successor, System Shock 2, where I was surrounded by the inky, unknowable blackness of outer space, things have gone, um, awry.

I had heard the splash (pun intended) this title had made in gaming press and wanted to tackle it in my own fashion.  I knew character modification, ridiculously-overpowering weaponry and psi powers were all the jazz, but I wanted to somehow implement my own as-non-violent-as-possible approach to the affairs.

I wound up in the soaking corridors of Rapture after swimming, alone, to a lighthouse following an airplane crash in the mid-Atlantic untold miles from land.  My first image of the sprawling city beneath my roundabout, impromptu tropical rendezvous — was an enormous bust of its creator, megalomaniac Andrew Ryan, and below his likeness a banner proudly displaying  ‘No Gods or Kings, Only Man.’  A few steps past this take you to an elevator leading to a bathysphere.  There was nowhere else to go.  It’s down the hatch or back out to the relentless, careless ocean with nothing in sight save for the flaming wreckage of my aircraft.   The irony was smothering.  Topside is sun and surf, but this is no vacation.  There’ll be no postcard.

I was treated to a breathtaking, sweeping cruise over the city as the bathysphere took me a docking station.  While a tourist in New York would traverse the streets, gawking up at the massive buildings casting shadows over them, I for the most part was looking down into the depths where city blocks would otherwise be located.  A blue whale drifted by, uttering its mournful baritone call, a sound with which I became all too familiar.  During your ride, a canned commercial blares the voice of Andrew Ryan touting Rapture as the sweat of his brow, where scientists and surgeons would not be bound by petty morality and purveyors of fine art would not be constricted by the normal limitations and weak minds, where everyone can revel in total freedom.

Unfortunately, the first citizen I met – he who supposedly enjoyed the high life, unencumbered by all that topside red tape – was disemboweling another man with a sickle. I learned later he was a splicer, a crazed lunatic who had become too greedy and overindulged in the genetic tomfoolery so becoming to the citizens of Rapture (See, greed and self-imploding exists even at the bottom of the sea. Isn’t life grand?).  Still, I bemused, I can do this. Nice guys don’t have to finish last.

Then an insistent voice told me to pick up the shortwave radio beside me.  I did, and Atlas explained that he would be my guide.  I had just made a friend!  Alright, let me cut to the chase.  Without giving away chunks of the plot, I discovered once again that in video games, trust shouldn’t be something you carelessly toss someone’s way.  I’d almost insist that those new to System Shock 2 and Bioshock play the former first.  The unbelievable tension and dread permeating their respective landscapes is uncannily alike and they share a common, devastating plot twist that I can’t talk about.

Nonetheless, with the encouragement of Atlas, I engaged in combat with said homicidal, sickle-bearing maniac.  I won, and took a few bucks from his pockets to boot.  Just a few minutes into the game and already I was changing.  Regular cash like you and I spend on videogames up here is used to purchase first aid kits, Eve hypos (more on that later), ammunition, hacking tools for use on safes and security devices, and so on.  Cash can be found lying around, in registers, in the plethora of trash cans, ashtrays and crates littering this battle-savaged city.

A few chapters later, I dealt with a Dr Steinman I learned about via radio messages scattered about the game world, a plot progression device shared by System Shock 2.  The lion’s share of characters I encountered were strictly via their taped recordings.  One woman, a Diane McClintock, was thrilled that Steinman, who turned out to be the quintessential ‘mad scientist’, would be happy to perform some wonders in plastic surgery for her.  Well, wait until you hear a transmission of Steinman and his nurse as they hover over a patient due to get a facelift she wasn’t scheduled for. (See, vanity and playing God exist even at the ocean floor, too!)

The stars of the show, one of whom graces the cover on the box, are the Big Daddies.  These tromping, metal-clad, drill-bearing monstrosities protect the Little Sisters, pale-faced little waifs who wander the halls carrying syringes to collect Adam from corpses. Your first sight of one of the Little Sisters, quietly going about her business jabbing the needle into a body and then slurping the contents down, will likely be filed away in that Most Memorable Moments spot in your brain for awhile.  So too will the sight of the Big Daddy bursting through the wall to protect her after one of the garden-variety splicers tries to slap her around.

Hearing the whale-like crooning, followed by the heavy tread of the monsters boots, followed in turn by the Little Sister cooing, “Look, Mister Bubbles, this one is ready to burst!” before jabbing the needle, never got any easier.  Especially considering that to progress, I had to get my hands on the Adam the sisters owned in order to genetically improve my own condition with plasmids (flamethrowing, freezing enemies, unleashing swarms of bees and tricking cameras into attacking my enemies, etc.) if I were to survive.

This is precisely where my moral nice-guy conundrum unfolded.  After defeating a Big Daddy (a harrowing experience with even the elite in psi powers and armaments), I was instantly face-to-face with its distraught protectee and given two choices – harvest or rescue her.  Being the good Samaritan that I am, I rescued her and did so with every single one thereafter.

At least in my first game.  It was intriguing to be thanked sincerely (I believe) by Dr. Tenenbaum whenever I freed one of her subjects and sometimes received a gift at one of the many Gatherer’s Gardens.  However, the level of difficulty I saw at medium (you can select low, medium or difficult at the beginning of a game, always a blessing) necessitates as much Adam as I could get my increasingly greedy hands onto.  Eve hypos can be purchased or found lying around, and it is at Gatherer’s Gardens that total health and Eve stores are pumped up, giving more electro, freeze or telekinesis blasts before the need to jam another hypodermic, a loud, squishy affair.

The Gardens are one of many variations of vending machines you’ll encounter (I remember seeing my first and thinking, Hmmm, I’ll take a Sunkist, bag of chips and hmmm, bees swarm from my fingertips); the Circus of Values complete with annoying clown chatter you can hear three rooms away, supplies basic necessities; the Power to the People setup upgrades your weapon (you’ll get Xbox achievements upon fully improving pieces in your arsenal) and Gene Banks let you configure how adept at safecracking, shrugging off enemy firepower or converting food and bandages to health you are at any one time.  I loved being able to hack flying security droids to fight for me, and would geek out (is that the term) whenever one would spring to life and buzz around, watching my back.

The world is very easy to navigate, with the map linked to the back button on the controller, your current goal marked with a big red X, and easily identifiable icons for weapons and supplies you may need before moving on.  Load times are kept to a minimum and aren’t a problem at all considering how much geography lies between them. The heads-up display is intuitive and immerses you into the game, the color scheme is spot-on, and there are no ridiculous button configurations to remember.  Except for a few sequences, you can save your game whenever you want.  I wanted to a lot (I guess nice guy translates to wuss).

Bioshock employs one gameplay feature that single-handedly turns often frustrating, seemingly impossible battles into merely intimidating but exhilarating highlights.  If you die during battle, you respawn at the nearest Vita-Chamber rather than at the beginning of a level like so many other games force down your throat.  Any gaping holes you’ve made in an opponent will still be there when you return to the fight, which makes Big Daddy confrontations soooooo much more tolerable. I can’t fathom (pardon the pun, again) having to die, find my way back through waves of enemies, hunt down a Big Daddy and try the whole thing all over again and again.  As good as this title is, there are so many games to play. 

There are some minor annoyances, even with a title as ambitious and profoundly groundbreaking as this.  Shotguns couldn’t perforate a balloon.  Your recently slain foes hands and/or feet twitch strangely, and while not as obnoxious as the backwards C that many felled foe bodies bent into in the Xbox Thief title, it’s odd.  You can’t scroll through your weapons or plasmids in both directions, so if in the middle of a firefight you accidentally skip the hypnotize Big Daddy power you wanted to wield, you could take a bit longer of a beating than anticipated while you search for it.

The only other quibbles I had were my inability to activate the numerous bot shutdown panels or to sneak up on splicers or the plethora of automatic turrets and cameras, despite having genetic modifications later in the game that would have allowed me to.  Also, despite the huge swatches of shadows on screen, you never really feel like you’re hidden from sight.  I can’t count how many times I thought I was clothed in darkness only to have a splicer or three come bearing down on me from 50 feet away.

Still, I can’t imagine anyone leaving Bioshock disappointed. I was particularly fond of it after seeing its early, uncanny resemblance to The Shining, one of my favorite films of all time.  Especially during early scenes in a hotel function hall, where a themed, gala event had unfolded, masks and party favors everywhere.  Music from another age emanates from everywhere.  Most of the splicers you battle still wear masks and bottles of Arcadia wine litter the landscape.  Now that I think about it, your name in the game is Jack!  It can’t be a coincidence! (There aren’t any hedge mazes at the bottom of the ocean, however).

Whether you’re a nice guy or not and whether you tackle System Shock 2 beforehand or not (or (re)watchThe Shining!), you owe it to yourself to own a copy of Bioshock. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, but playing this game makes Jack a fun action hero. Great party, isn’t it?

Final Grade: A 

Troy Merrick

Troy Merrick

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