System: PC
Release Date: 2007
Published By: 2K Games
Reviewed by: Darien

Bioshock is easily one of the most atmospheric games ever made. It's set in an incredible underwater art deco wonderland, and the visual design of both the world and the UI was obviously done with great care so that it really presents a consistent feel of being an alterna-tech version of the early twentieth century. The sounds is similarly strong, and features a fair few actual period songs playing from jukeboxes, gramophones, and whatnot -- to my thinking, the music is what really sells the package. Yes, this is a game with a very carefully crafted atmosphere. It's a shame the actual game isn't that great.

Bioshock is nominally a first-person shooter, but it owes a lot of debt to the survival horror genre. There are very few different types of mobs, and many of them are hard to tell apart, looking more like the generic survival horror "zombie" than much else. Tactically, they're very simple, and basically just run around aimlessly while blasting away at you. Aiming is sort of a bitch, since your targeting reticle is very small and difficult to see against a lot of backgrounds, but that's not really a very big deal, since you'll probably be meleeing with most of the mobs anyhow. It's not that this is one of those games that shorts you on ammunition or anything -- in fact, it throws it at you in heaps and gobs almost constantly, and there are tons of vending machines to buy it from all over the place. It's just that, by and large, the guns are plain old less effective than just bashing the shit out of things with your wrench.

This is mainly because of Bioshock's peculiar character development system, which is simultaneously the most fun part and the least fun part about the game. It's a lot of fun finding new types of "gene tonics" -- equippable upgrades that alter your abilities -- and playing with them, but eventually they'll trivialise the game if you're even a bit intelligent about combining them. In particular, equipping all the melee tonics at the same time makes you pretty much an invisible, unstoppable ball of death, which is pretty cool for a little while but gets old kind of quickly. There are 53 different gene tonics, of which you can have 18 equipped at a time, so it's not like you're strapped for options in this regard.

If for some reason you decide to use the guns, you'll probably find them terribly confusing anyway. There are six different guns, which doesn't seem like so many, but each of them has two possible upgrades and three different types of ammunition. Realistically, it's best to find a weapon/ammo combination that's effective against Big Daddies (giant robot dudes who are a bitch to wrench) and pretty much ignore everything else. Which in turn leads to an overabundance of money and crafting bits.

Because of course there's goddamn crafting. It's pretty non-repellent in Bioshock, though, since there aren't very many different materials, none of them are hard to get, and you don't need to farm for some exceedingly rare components to make the only decent items in the game. It's actually not noticably different from any other vendor in the game. No, I'm afraid that if you're looking for some irritating bullshit minigame to convince you that you're playing a modern video game, you'll have to look elsewhere -- say, the hacking routine. Hacking is a cool concept -- you can hack vendors to get lower prices, hack security systems to attack the mobs instead of you, hack locked doors to open them, and so forth. The trouble is in the implementation. To hack something successfully, you basically play a round of Pipe Dream, which is a fine game but not exactly the one I thought I was getting. The worst part is that there's so much stuff to hack that you'll honestly probably spend more time playing fucking Pipe Dream than anything else. Of course, if you get bored with being interrupted by minigames, you can always take advantage of the many cutscenes that are perfectly willing to interrupt you. These are the worst kind of cutscenes, too; these cutscenes actually take control of what is theoretically "your" character and autopilot certain actions the plot requires. I was willing to forgive that during the intro sequence (even though it completely ruined the tension of the scene), but it doesn't stop there; cutscenes all throughout the game will play this dumb trick.

The game's plot is interesting, sort of like Ayn Rand presents The Once and Future King starring Howard Hughes. If that makes the whole thing sound odd and complicated, well, good, since that's what it is. For the most part, though, it does an excellent job of keeping you engaged with the play, though there are some bits that don't make any sense at all (what exactly happens in the submarine scene is a subject of much confusion, for example). It derails a bit by the end, and the major plot twist is telegraphed so strongly that I'm not sure anybody's ever been surprised by the reveal, but it's mostly good. Andrew Ryan in particular is a very interesting and complex character, and I rather wish I'd seen and heard a bit more of him and a bit less of Dr. freaking Suchong. The combination of plot, characterisation, and atmosphere makes Rapture a really interesting setting; if the much-discussed movie ever makes it through production, I'd be keen to check it out.

The game also isn't technically sound. It's a bit tetchy and likes to object to your poor defenseless video drivers, and you may have to try many different versions to get them to play nice. Even that notwithstanding, the options menus are not very well designed, and, for some reason, if the game ever crashes or otherwise terminates irregularly, it will reset all your settings -- keybindings included! -- to default (which isn't a bug -- it's doing it on purpose). The game's positional audio is pretty bad also, and doesn't do a very good job of telling you where the mobs are, at least if you're using headphones.

Is Bioshock a game worth playing? Absolutely -- the atmosphere is terrific and absorbing, and the game itself isn't bad so much as just lacklustre. With any luck, 2K Boston will make another game in the same vein, but they'll spend some of their cutscene-and-minigame budget on making a better main game. Or at least a more usable map.

Buy this game from Amazon.com!


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