WORDS BY: Francesca Reyes
Atlas. Big Daddies. Little Sisters. Adam. EVE. There’s no doubt that if you were to follow BioShock’s narrative rabbit down the hole, the result would be a many-layered conclusion open to interpretation — and that’s if you’re lucky enough to whittle it down to just “many-layered.” Yet, for all its deliciously high-handed sound and fury, 2K Boston’s mesmerizing underwater thriller is better described as a remarkably beautiful first-person psyche-out in a submerged haunted house. Anything or anyone left breathing in Rapture — visionary-turned-madman Andrew Ryan’s creation — can’t really be called “alive,” after all.
We can also say this: BioShock is one of the most well-thought-out and masterfully crafted games we’ve had the pleasure to play in a very, very long time. Right from the initial white-knuckle descent below the water’s surface into Rapture’s derelict, foreboding entrance hall, nothing is left to chance. The developers have fashioned the game’s first few hours into nothing short of a horrifying, diabolically clever roller-coaster ride from both a gameplay and narrative standpoint. If you’re confused, you’re meant to be confused. If your hands are shaking a little when you fumble for a light switch in the game, ditto. To go into any more detail would be doing you a spoiler-iffic disservice.
As the game continues to open up after the terrific first few hours, you slowly come to grips with how the world of Rapture works. Until you reach this point, it won’t be surprising if you feel overwhelmed. Learning how to juggle and manage your newly bestowed powers (called Plasmids, they’re fueled by a hotly sought-after substance dubbed “Adam”), wrestling with upgradable weapons, and wrapping your brain around Rapture’s densely detailed maps — there’s a lot to see, do, and photograph (in the case of “researching” BioShock’s supremely aggressive enemies).
On top of that, everything from corpses to lockboxes to turrets is searchable for items, ammo, and health. And if you don’t look hard enough, you’ll miss those secret wall vents just aching for a good whack from your wrench to reveal tantalizing treats. This is no casual run-and-gun, Mister Chief: It’s a much more deliberate, atmospheric tour of a different type of alien world. You’ll find safes and assorted gadgets to hack, environmental and combat obstacles to surmount with specific Plasmids (is that ice blocking that door? Why, I’ll shuffle my Incinerate to melt it away!), and dire choices to weigh on that conscience of yours (see boxout).
BioShock’s brainy shooter formula feels deliciously organic, if a bit frenetic. You won’t be pushing crates or simply collecting keys — instead, you’ll be keeping your eyes peeled and your ears open for key lock combinations, hacking the right turrets or security cams to protect you in tight situations, and using the environment (water, oil, gas tanks) to your advantage in a firefight. Nothing seems forced or tacked-on — you give what you get, and it’s entirely your call on how smartly you want to let the game play out.
Though the straightforward A.I. of your biologically warped enemies may not be as brainy (we blame most foes’ kamikaze-style attacks on the Adam…right, 2K Boston?), the action and pacing remain constant without ever detracting from the game’s real core: a level of emotional investment in what is happening to you and to Rapture.
And this is the sweet, grisly fruit of your micromanagement – it’s the world you’re stomping around in. You can dive deep into the fiction of Rapture’s twisted universe (and your mysterious role within it) by collecting recordings sprinkled about every corridor, office, and killing ground. You can stop for a bit to take in the visual story of this sunken Eden that clutters the halls with story and mystery. Or you can simply ignore the backstory and chalk it all up to wonderfully atmospheric window dressing draped around an expertly crafted haunted-house shooter.
No matter how you look at it, the weird whispery banter between a red-eyed Little Sister and her hulking, shadowy Big Daddy guardian gives the entire bloodbath that’s about to follow a melancholic, emotive twinge. And though BioShock’s story seems to slip away from its creators in its final acts — and the actual CG payoff for what is, up to that point, a sophisticated and engrossing interactive yarn, feels too short (for either ending) and disappointingly out-of-place — the game deserves to be played by everyone. It’s that magnificent. Throughout its rich, imaginative, 15- to 20-hour journey from figurative surface to the depths below, you find yourself feeling, thinking, and imagining maybe even more than you’re hacking, plundering, and shooting. It’s by no means a perfect game, but the way it merges storytelling with deftly crafted action is a brilliant and mostly successful exercise in seeing just how flexible the videogame medium can be. Play it, talk about it, experience it — a game like BioShock won’t happen again for a good long while.
+ Wonderfully dark, atmospheric descent into a rich universe full of surprises and horror.
+ So much going on gameplay-wise, youâ€™ll be breathless.
- Not wildly innovative, and the endingâ€™s not a great payoff.
? Do Splicers ever stop talking? We hear their chattering in our dreams!