For all the talk of next-gen gaming, very few games actually try something new. Most big games nowadays are sequels, or sports games, or movie tie-ins. A few original IP's have made a splash (Gears of War, Resistance: Fall of Man) and reminded us why we're spending hundreds upon hundreds of dollars for these brand new consoles. But overall, video games are stuck in a creative rut. Even games with unique physics like Prey don't offer much in the way of a compelling storyline or much of anything that moves beyond the standard run-and-gun scenario that games have been playing since Doom and before.
And then, every so often, there are games that truly break new ground. Games like Deus Ex or System Shock 2. These games genuinely went somewhere different with their gameplay and their storytelling, granting them instant classic status in the gamer community. You'd think games like this would spur other developers to take their innovations and build on them. Sadly, that doesn't seem the case. But luckily, much of the team that worked on those groundbreaking experiences have returned for an outing that pushes the limits once again: Bioshock.
Bioshock takes no prisoners. Within the first 30 seconds, your character, Jack, finds himself stranded in the middle of the Atlantic due to a plane crash. Noticing a structure in the distance, he makes his way toward it, only to discover an underwater metropolis. This is Rapture. Lorded over by megalomaniac Andrew Ryan (an anagram of "We R Ayn Rand" as someone pointed out to me), Rapture is a world without rules. Where people could live freely, without the petty tyrannies that dominate our daily lives.
But something went wrong. By the time Jack gets down there, the place is falling in on itself. The residents are hysterical and bloodthirsty, and they're all hellbent on murdering you. You're not without help, though. A man named Atlas (a la Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand) sympathizes with your plight and gives you tips to help you survive. He may even know a way back to the surface. In exchange, you do tasks for him.
This is only scratching the surface. The game itself mirrors Jack's underwater descent, continually adding new elements that deepens the experience for the player. For example, early on in the game you are introduced to plasmids. These revolutionary concoctions actually change a person's genetic structure, giving them powers never before thought possible. The first one you receive is the ability to shoot electrical bolts from your hands. As you can probably guess, this comes in handy almost immediately, as Rapture is full of leaks and open bodies of water. Think about the possibilities.
And that's where the real draw of Bioshock lies. The combat is endlessly customizable. You get the standard assortment of first-person shooter weapons, and you will certainly use them, but here they're more of a backup than your first line of attack. Why shoot someone when you can freeze them and shatter them into a thousand pieces? When you can light them on fire and when they run to water to put themselves out, you shoot them with electricity? Throwing someone into the air with a whirlwind may not be the most efficient way to kill someone, but the satisfaction level is much, much higher. A creative player with a full assortment of plasmids at his disposal can come up with literally hundreds of different ways to maim, kill, and obliterate enemies as the game progresses.
This is achieved not just through the powers granted to you, but from Bioshock offering a supremely interactive environment. Almost every single thing you see in the game can be manipulated in some form or fashion, many of them requiring specific plasmids to be effective. Not only that, but the AI is realistic and actually behave as you would expect humans to in a firefight. They strategize, they run when they're afraid, they try to protect themselves from harm. One example I've already mentioned was that when an enemy is set on fire, they will run to the closest body of water to put themselves out. This leads to the player adapting to a wholly new method of combat. Running and gunning isn't much of an option anymore. Now you have to work smart, not hard.
And the enemies you encounter aren't just intelligent when they're fighting. As you meet more and more people, you'll find that they all have personalities. Granted, the generic foot soldiers you encounter (called Splicers due to how often their genes have been spliced) come in certain types, and the types all tend to act similarly. But even then, if you sneak around you'll hear each and every one of them going about their business. They're not just in the game to kill you. They actually have their own lives that get interrupted (and considerably shortened) by your presence. And their comings and goings point to the deeper mysteries Rapture holds.
The story is the other component of Bioshock that sets it off from the pack. The questions layered in to the game draw you in, and make you pursue the answers no matter to what hideous arenas they may lead you. For example, you may notice that small girls roam the halls of Rapture, poking corpses with needles and sucking juices out of them. These are called Little Sisters, and they carry Adam, the organic matter that allows people in Rapture to change themselves with plasmids. At first, all you're told is that they're not human. However, the deeper you go, the more you learn about the woman who created them, the process she used, and the ultimate purpose of their existence. These storylines are introduced through audio diaries strewn throughout the levels. You may not be able to discover all of the audio tapes your first time through, leaving gaps in the story that you can fill in with your imagination.
So, in that sense, Bioshock is interactive in more than just gameplay. It engages your mind as well as your reflexes. It's obvious the creators read a lot of literature to use as a basis for Rapture and its denizens. Each major character has his or her own ideology, which you may or may not agree with. The great thing about the game is that it lets you decide. Perhaps you fully embrace Ryan's philosophies, and only wish to kill him in order to supplant him. Maybe you despise the use of plasmids, and so you use them as fleetingly as possible. The game lays these ideas out for you, but leave the ultimate conclusions for you to figure out for yourself.
The game has a few slight flaws. It's practically impossible to get through the game without hacking many of Rapture's various machines, whether they be vending machines, gun turrets, security cameras and more. The thing is, every single hack is performed the same way. Pretty much, you play the game Pipe Dream, where you have different pieces of pipe that you have to piece together in such a way that liquid flows uninterrupted from a preset start point to a preset end point. The frequency with which you have to hack makes this mini-game extremely repetitious. It's not particularly difficult, just time consuming. Furthermore, as intriguing as the overall story is, game occasionally falls back on standard conventions to pad out the game's length. Several times you will make your way to your goal, only to be told that in order to continue, you'll have to collect a specific item or group of items that were not accessible previous to your being told you have to retrieve them. Some people have complained that as it is the game is too short, but this isn't the way to make it longer, especially when you've got such a compelling unfolding story that you could expand.
In the grand scheme of things, these elements are relatively minor. Bioshock is still one of the most unique and surprising games I've played in several years on any console. If you own a 360 or a halfway decent PC, you owe it to yourself to play Bioshock. Once you do, you won't be able to look at shooters the same way ever again.
Bioshock is the first game to be built from the ground up for Microsoft's Direct X 10, and while the 360 can't actually handle full Direct X 10 content, this is still hands down the best looking game on the system. It may very well be the most visually impressive game I've ever seen. The attention and care poured into every element of the game is absolutely astonishing. From the first moments, where you find yourself in the wreckage of a plane in the middle of the Atlantic, the effects are incredible. The water rippling and undulating while reflecting the firelight is a sight to behold.
But that's nothing compared to the sensory feast that is Rapture. Inspired by the Art Deco movement that was dominant during the period when Ayn Rand wrote the bulk of what her fans consider to be her best works. Rapture is a full city, with different areas that all look identifiably different, and yet all still adhering to the overall design principles. Neon signage abounds, marking the economic culture Ryan was trying to cultivate.
The characters are equally detailed, with different clothing and very realistic movement. Perhaps the pinnacle of the character design comes in the form of the Big Daddy. These hulking behemoths in deep-sea diving suits protect the Little Sisters from harm as they harvest Adam throughout Rapture. Appearing in several different types, each with a joke nickname (the ones who ram into you are called "Bouncers," the ones who shoot rivet guns are called "Rosie," etc.), they are as beautiful as they are dangerous. They're so well designed and animated that you almost don't want to attack them. They appear as gentle giants who turn brutal when attacked. But if you stay out of their way, it's easy to admire their majestic beauty, much as you might admire a rhino from afar if you found yourself out in the open with one.
I've never heard a video game as sonically detailed as Bioshock. Of course, there's the standard glut of surround sound goodies that pan around you in a circle as you turn around. That's par for the course. But what I've never heard is a game that adds so many non-essential details. Many times, I'll be listening to a conversation, only to hear a sound I cannot identify. Searching around did me no good, it was just an environmental sound, perhaps the sound of the building creaking against the weight of all the water outside. The point is, these sounds do nothing to help me beat the game. But they help create the atmosphere and draw the player in to the world the game creates.
The voice acting is uniformly phenomenal. The cast of characters grows very quickly, but all of them are made compelling by the excellent voice work. And that doesn't just apply to the major players. The Splicers have a variety of unique voices that make them feel real, and not like mindless hordes of zombies. Not all Splicers are alike.
The sound is flawless in every aspect. It's so good that it alone can scare the living daylights out of you, even if there's no danger around. Amazing.
Bioshock does something that video games rarely bother to do: Break new ground. A combination of endlessly creative combat, mixed with a captivating story make for an experience that I can promise you've never had in any other video game before. And the breathtaking picture and sound bring it all to life with an attention to detail that you rarely see. Simply put, you have to play this game. If you don't own a 360, buy one. If you do, you might as well have an Atari 2600 if you're not using that 360 to play Bioshock. This is a must-have not just in the sense that you have to own it, it's a must-have in the sense that it makes all the rest of your video games seem less necessary. Videogame Talk Collector Series.