Reviewed by John Hussey
Bioshock is one of those video games which I heard a lot about but never quite got the chance to play it. At the time of its release I didn’t own an Xbox 360 and by the time it had become available for PlayStation the game had already produced sequels, making me rather late to join the bandwagon. But after much consideration I decided to finally give it a go, and so I got Bioshock: The Collection for Christmas.
I have to give the game credit off the bat for immersing me in its unique atmosphere. The game felt strange and uneasy after mere moments of playing it as it sucks you into the world of Rapture. Bioshock is great at not giving you any clear information or meaning, you’re just expected to move forward because of your own curiosity. The protagonist, Jack, manages to survive a plane crash and stumbles upon the entrance to Rapture, resulting in one of the most brilliantly crafted introductions to a video game.
Rapture feels alive. It doesn’t just act as an environment you roam around but rather a breathing entity that you can explore and learn about. Every room, every character and every creation has a backstory to tell and a lot of the game is spent learning about Rapture’s distorted history and how it came from being a utopia for the elite to a place of desuetude and insanity.
What I love most is the setting. It’s clever who 2K Games managed to merge the era of the 1950s and 60s with a science fiction atmosphere. And yet the two blend nicely and you never feel like Rapture is too far-fetched or stands out against the time it’s set. In many ways it’s just a great idea which 2K Games take complete advantage of, and were clearly enjoying expanding their unique world.
Bioshock acts as a first-person shooter, with the added element of exploration. The game itself doesn’t necessarily have a straightforward narrative, rather a bunch of tasks that you need to achieve to progress. But within this is a continuous delving into the history of Rapture and slowly discovering what is going on at the heart of the dystopia. In the process of this journey you encounter a wide range of characters that further develop the gritty, and haunting world you are stuck within.
There are many variant forms of Splicers, demented creatures that were created to combat Rapture’s creator, Andrew Ryan. Then there are the surviving members of Ryan’s loyal elite that have driven themselves mad due to the decaying city. You even encounter the remaining sane citizens that attempt to help you in your quest for answers (although you are always on guard for alternative motives, or the first hint of retaliation). And finally there’s the Big Daddies and the Little Sisters.
All of these characters breath life into the game because of their unique presence and backstory. For someone like myself who prefers a linear gaming narrative that sticks to the point am rather impressed that the explorative nature of Bioshock managed to suck me in. It’s one of those games, similar to Dark Souls and The Elder Scrolls, where your understanding of the world is solely based on you and your willingness to venture deeper into the underwater nightmare.
This is cleverly done through your interactions with the different characters, your collection of audio dairies, and the simple wondering of Rapture in general. The dairy entries are the key to discovering more about Rapture and its torturous past, and usually gets you one step closer to discovering the truth by having things put in perspective. It’s rather interesting when you delve into the conflicts that have gone on within Rapture, particularly between Atlas (the mysterious man who helps you from your arrival) and Ryan.
Atlas created a revolution against Ryan and turned the lower class into an army to take control of Rapture. This resulted in the creation of both the Little Sisters and the Splicers. The Little Sisters was a cruel means of distributing ATOM around Rapture via illegal means, whilst the Splicers were the result of getting the lower class addicted to the drug and transforming them into deranged monsters. Then Ryan retaliated by creating the Big Daddies in order to blindly protect the Little Sisters and dispose of the Splicers.
It’s certainly a frightening environment to say the least, making Bioshock feel like a horror game at times, particularly with its usage of unsettling imagery, jump-scares, feeling of helplessness, and the sinister music that often creates a sense of tension and anxiety. It becomes rather crazy seeing how drugs have caused so much destruction, turning a place of imagination and prosperity into a place of derangement and psychotic terror.
Every character is affected differently and as you explore you discover some of the worst, and most disgusting characters within the horror genre. J.S. Steinman stands out in most player’s minds. What I enjoy most about his character is the slow and brutal build-up as you travel through his area and get an idea of what ATOM has done to his mind. Once he was a brilliant surgeon, now turned into a mad-man who sees his patients as canvases for his twisted imagination. This results in his patients becoming victims as he mutilates their bodies to try and create a new form of art. Upon finally meeting the man you are more than ready to put him out of his misery.
The music for me is where Bioshock shines. Composer Gary Schyman really knew how to explore Bioshock‘s meaning, and in the process intensify the grim atmosphere of Rapture and develop a composing unlike most. Schyman’s music is just so haunting at times and really gets you pumped up to combat the terrors within this underwater dystopia. In particular the opening track, “Welcome to Rapture”, goes down in gaming history as being one of the best video game themes of all time.
As stated above, the narrative is generated through the tasks you undertake which pushes the game into the straightforward structure of ‘go from point A to point B to grab item C to use for thing D’. It’s fair to say that this structure can become rather tiresome after a while. Though the atmosphere keeps the game interesting for the beginning of Bioshock it does start to lose its charm and by the end becomes rather disjointed.
Without exploration Bioshock would have a hard time selling itself and this in question is its major downfall because I think the game needed a more interactive story beyond the endless tasks. Yes it gets the story across well enough but most of the dialogue is delivered through audio tapes and communication devices which can easily be missed due to everything else going on in the gameplay. Plus my audio was rather terrible and the dialogue would often get drowned out by other noises going on in the background. There really needed to be more set-pieces that explained the story better, then at least the ending wouldn’t feel so confusing and somewhat anti-climatic.
I must say despite all the build-up I’ve heard about the twist ending in Bioshock I wasn’t all that impressed. Yes it was surprising but I didn’t feel it added much to the narrative but rather detracted. I was expecting Ryan to have something up his sleeve but instead he’s shoved to one side to allow Atlas to be the surprise villain. It is rather disturbing to discover that Jack’s life was a complete lie and he’s merely an instrument to be manipulated, but when you consider Jack has no real character to begin with and remains a typical first-person silent drown it’s really hard to feel any emotion towards his character.
On top of that the law of Bioshock is mostly revealed through its audio entries and if you miss them the history of Rapture, and the narrative itself, doesn’t make a lot of sense. And due to my audio problems I would often miss key moments of dialogue which explained things. Ryan is ultimately killed in a violent manner as he finally gives in (after Jack pursues him throughout the game and corners him in his office) and exploits Jack’s hypnotic suggestion to beat him senselessly with his own golf-club.
Atlas’s reveal becomes a further disappointment and destroys any character he had before (mostly concerning his original objective of finding his wife and child before they are tragically killed by Ryan). I suppose that makes the surprise more compelling due to his persona before being the perfect lie but his overall intentions don’t make a lot of sense and he generally descends into being a generic villain lacking depth. It becomes even more pathetic when he turns himself in a Resident Evil styled boss after pumping himself with ATOM and turning into a rage monster. But due to my well equipped, and upgraded, inventory his battle became a massive joke and the conclusion to this once atmospheric horror experience dies on its arse.
But apart from the set-back with the narrative Bioshock remains a decent game. The atmosphere still remains within the early segments of the game and the overall journey into this chaotic world is mostly enjoyable. What adds to the game is the research side-mission in which you can go around taking pictures of the different creatures and technological enemies that attempt to kill you at every turn in order to learn of better ways of combating them, and overall up your chances at surviving.
One of the best aspects of the game is the choice system surrounding the Little Sisters. This depends on if you want a smooth ride or not but like all hard decisions there are consequences. Luckily I knew how the choice system worked and how it affected the ending, so naturally I decided to rescue the Little Sisters. But for someone who is unaware of the games mechanics would be clueless as to how the game wants you to play. Brigid Tenenbaum constantly adds to the difficulty of the decision.
On the one hand attracting the drug from the Little Sisters will mean you have a better chance of upgrading your arsenal but it means you kill them. On the other hand if you chose to rescue the Little Sisters they are freed from the condition of the drugs but you get less currency to spend on upgrading your abilities, making your journey more challenging. But the one thing you have to consider is the ending and how you want your torturous journey to conclude.
Even if you chose to rescue the Little Sisters you still have to combat the Big Daddies and these things are hard to kill whilst you can be taken down in an instant. They are a great challenge to overcome throughout the game and serve as nice mini-bosses. As the game progresses, however, you find that your encounters with them become smoother because you have adapted to the world of Rapture and have learned how to utilise your abilities and weapons.
The tragedy comes with dispatching the Big Daddies as at the end of the day they are a slave to their programming. You are essentially brutally killing innocent creatures just because their purpose for existing is to protect the object of your interest. It’s made even worse when the Little Sister’s cry over their deaths, sometimes questioning why their friend no longer moves and won’t get up. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel by seeing the Little Sisters freed and knowing that they get a happy ending.
The combat system for Bioshock is really good, and becomes rather fun once you’ve mastered it. Bioshock adds in your usual arsonary of weapons, ranging from pistols, shotguns, machine guns, and grenade launches, each with their own unique bullet types that you can experiment with. But what the game also does is add in a secondary weapon system in the form of Plasmid. This element allows you to create different abilities for yourself, allowing you to control different elements, use telekinesis and even control the Big Daddies. So it’s fair to say that you can play around with the combat system until you’ve found a gameplay that suits your preference.
My one criticism with the combat system is it makes you overpowered. To begin with the game is balanced nicely to make you feel equip enough but still feel dangerously outmatched in this corrupt world. But it quickly becomes apparent that with all the added weapons, the added usage of Plasmids, and on top of that the endless supply of upgrades you can get, ultimately make you perfectly capable of taking on any challenge that comes before you.
Don’t get me wrong, Bioshock still remains challenging and you can still die and go through endless amounts of health items. And of course the game has the built-in system that you have to constantly scavenge the leftovers of Rapture in order to find items you need to survive. This also includes the different currencies in which you need to upgrade your weapons, Plasmids, and physical attributes that help greatly to make yourself stronger and more capable of handling the different elements.
But despite the elements put into place to make you earn your survival, supplies become too abundant towards the end of the game making your scavenging feel less urgent. The biggest flaw which detracts any kind of challenge is the Vita-Chambers which respawn you every time you die. This means you can fight an enemy, in my case usually a Big Daddy, to your hearts content because there’s no consequence to you failing.
You don’t get a “Game Over” screen, you just come back to life with your health slightly replenished, your weapons still remaining, and your progress unscathed. The only time Bioshock demands the none usage of this game device is the final boss, but by this point you’re overpowered and have nothing to worry about.
Bioshock is an atmospheric game with some really unique ideas but falls flat a couple of times because of strange decisions and lack of story immersion. The game falls apart towards the end and becomes rather dull and repetitive, and the lack of challenge doesn’t help. The most annoying segment came just before your confrontation with Atlas where you had to undertake several scavenger hunts to find key items (and most of the time it wouldn’t tell you where they were, making the task even more tedious). And then you had to participate in every gamer’s worst nightmare, an escort segment, and it was made more frustration because you had to protect the Little Sisters which ultimately made me feel guilty as hell every time I failed to protect one of them
I suppose it was made easier by another cool game aspect of being able to hack everything around you, and with the right physical attribute you can take control of the technology around you and turn the tables even further. But despite all the cool stuff going on Bioshock ultimately becomes semi-disappointing because of the narrative’s obscure direction and having Jack become a puppet, resulting in him having even less character than he did at the beginning.
I think had the narrative been fleshed out and made more interactive it may have paid off. But in my eyes turning Jack into a puppet made the game lose its unique charm of having a poor bystander escape one hell only to have the misfortunate to be slammed into another. But at least if you manage to rescue the Little Sisters you are rewarded for all your suffering and gain a heart-warming conclusion that near about washes away the bad taste of the third act.