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Easily one of the most hyped games of the year finally arrives; has it all been worth it...
- Plasmids provide plenty of choice.
- Sophisticated FPS gameplay.
- Absorbing plot and atmosphere.
- Later stages feel padded out.
- Not groundbreaking as the hype suggested.
- A little too easy on Normal.
Since making a splash at last year's E3, Irrational Games' (now 2K Austin & 2K Australia) Bioshock has built up a wave of expectation under the banner of a spiritual successor to the 1999 critically-acclaimed System Shock 2.
Taking place during 1960, Bioshock literally gets off to a flying start before crashing back down to earth with a plane wreck on the sea at night. Assuming the role of Jack, the sole survivor of the crash, a shining lighthouse provides the only beacon of hope and the unwitting entrance to Rapture. Pulled into a world of intrigue, Rapture was built with the motives to create an underwater city tailored for artists, musicians and doctors away from the post-war depression. A city so opulent in Art Deco designs and utopian ideals, but something's gone wrong... very wrong.
It's not long before Bioshock throws a twisted, disfigured fist in your face. Serving as a worthy reminder about the risks of too much Botox, the Splicers provide the majority of opponents you'll come across and come in a variety of forms, employing radically different techniques. Combat comes thick and fast in Bioshock; it's frenzied pace accentuated by the brutal intent of Splicer's attacks. Clamoring round on the ceiling above before dropping behind you, the Spider Splicers enjoy getting up close before slicing you to pieces; conversely the Leadhed Splicers prefer keeping their distance and taking pot shots at you, whilst the Houdini Splicer's specialty is disappearing in a puff of smoke only to reappear behind you. Opponent AI creates a distinctly different feel to combat than the vast majority of first-person-shooters. Constantly on the move and making choices based upon a considerable number of conditions, the dynamic nature of the AI creates a need to be on your toes and preferably with a big gun to hand, rarely will you have the sanctuary of clearing out an area and exploring at your own pace.
Undoubtedly, the icons of the game, the Big Daddies and Little Sister's of Rapture create Bioshock's most memorable moments and play an integral gameplay role. Wandering round the areas of Rapture, Little Sisters harvest the precious Adam from the various corpses dotted around the underwater city. The Big Daddy serves as the Little Sister's bodyguard, giving an intimidating warning when Jack or Splicers wander a little too close and often obliterate anybody who decides to attack her. The back-story behind the Big Daddy and Little Sisters provides one of the most interesting aspects of the game and a moralistic choice to shape the outcome. Later, Jack will gain the ability to use the Big Daddy's to his advantage, enraging them against other opponents or temporarily gaining the protection they give to the Little Sisters.
The wide range of weapons available in Bioshock are complimented by the game's Plasmids. Essential serving the same purpose as magic, Plasmids provide a variety of buffs and new abilities throughout the game via the use of Adam, though their effect on Rapture's former citizens suggests that the addictive qualities may be behind Rapture's downfall. Providing an array of choices to deal with situations in the game, Plasmids lend Bioshock the same feel as games such as System Shock, Thief and Deus Ex; do you toast that Splicer that hasn't recognised you, or electrify the pool of water that's he standing in?
Much like other games of its ilk, avoiding security cameras and scout bots plays a significant part. Unsurprisingly there's a plasmid for everything, whether it's reducing the chances of being spotted or improving your hacking skills. Played out as a mini-game reminiscent of the classic Pipemania, hacking security bots to follow and protect, or vending machines to get a cheap price, provides a welcome break from the action. It also appears to slightly unbalance the game, with an emphasis on hacking early on paying great dividends towards the end - provided the mini-game doesn't tire too quickly.
Serving as the game's checkpoints, Vita Chambers are both a blessing and a curse. Dotted frequently throughout Rapture, Vita Chambers throw you back into the action immediately upon death and often near to where you fell. This makes it hard to put Bioshock down, but at the same time, makes progress through the game a little too easy for our liking. It's hard to fault a game that keeps you engrossed from start-to-finish, but just make sure to take your time and enjoy everything Bioshock has to offer.
Undoubtedly, the amount of effort lavished upon the game's plot provides the biggest motivator to finishing the game. There's a level of quality typically unseen in videogames, whilst the twists and turns will keep you guessing until the end. In constant dialogue between two feuding characters, the main storyline and side-plots are described in the various radio messages you'll find scattered across Rapture. It's fortunate that so much attention has been paid on an exciting script to keep you going, as a number of issues hold Bioshock back from the perfect game it occasionally hints at.
Although combat is varied and enjoyable, the unrelenting pace but general ease leads to the occasional moments when it all feels a little too padded. Later stages also challenge John to collect multiple items to progress, which soon grows tiring. One particular section involving clearing an Apiary with a timed smoke blast, before searching the hives and dealing with Splicers soon gets tedious in its rinse-and-repeat structure... enough already.
It is also quite easy to get caught up with Bioware's successes. Perhaps it's because clever-fps had seemed all but dead after the commercial failure of System Shock II and Deus Ex: Invisible War. Given Irrational's previous work with System Shock II and the close relationship with Looking Glass Studios, it's somewhat inevitable that Bioshock feels a lot like the aforementioned titles. There's little in Bioshock that hasn't already been done, admittedly not with the same sense of style and presentation, but it's worth bearing in mind given the hefty weight of expectation and early critical appraise.
Trying to usurp System Shock II in the scary stakes is no easy feat, and whilst Bioshock doesn't quite manage to replicate the fear I remember in 1999, it does have its moments. Plenty of times I found myself eager to progress, but at the same time, terrified to take a step further in fear of what lay ahead. Bioshock does deranged very well, from start-to-finish it's a veritable freak-fest, yet deals with sensitive subjects such as the deluded Adam addiction that Rapture has fallen into, the concepts of greed and corruption even in a utopian society
Visually, it's a case of style above all else. Under the influences of Ayn Rand, Irrational Games have created a game world that portrays an intriguing juxtaposition of opulence and decay. Rapture started as a noble ideal, but quickly fell into the throws of corruption and greed; nothing tells you this quite like a water seeping in and covering the floor of a once majestic theatre. Although it's not the most technically proficient game on the Xbox 360, special mention must go to the water effect which easily brings the concept of a ruined underwater city to life. It's a shame that water is rarely used as a gameplay concept, but when it looks so convincing it's again difficult to criticise.
Easily outclassing the game's visuals, Bioshock's sound presentation is undoubtedly one of the best you'll hear from a videogame. From the 1940's music to the angered cries of Splicers that builds the atmosphere, Bioshock is a game best played on a good sound setup and very, very loud - just wait until you hear a Big Daddy approaching for the first time.
Avoid the Queues: To download Bioshock (PC) and begin playing immediately please check out Sky Games 'Download To Own' service - the first 500 will receive a Limited Edition Bioshock T-Shirt...