I’ve had this game for a couple of years and never thought about playing it. The box is bland, it’s an FPS, and muddy brown shooters do not excite me; almost all Xbox 360 shooters I’ve played have been terrible. Nothing personal against the game, but that’s how my shallow mind worked for the last few years. It was one of those “one day” games that really means “never” because I only play what excites me. What finally piqued my interest was a friend talking about this game as if it was more than a shooter. Could it be, a fun game on the shelf right in front of me? Lo and Behold, it’s fucking amazing. Bioshock is an extremely well crafted game with a heavy, purposeful atmosphere that actually makes the Unreal Engine seem legitimately titled. I beat the game a few days ago and I’m still thinking about it, it’s one of those games that sticks with you. While my head is still putting itself back together in the depths of Rapture, allow me to drag you down with me and capture the essence of Bioshock like a true artist.
Welcome to Rapture, an underground civilisation created for people insecure in their ability to exist happily in the outside world. Everyone has gone insane because, who knew? They can’t exist with each other either. I’m here because my plane crashed right next to the entrance, and this place looks cool right? Let’s check it out.
Upon gaining control of my character I immediately felt a comforting nostalgia with the core movement and graphical style. It reminded me of some old PC shooters, while the graphical style felt like Fallout 3 with significantly more detail. The western FPS development environment has a specific janky charm only a few games have really taken advantage of, and to my relief Bioshock is one of the games that pulls it off well. There isn’t anything I really like about this, but it’s just a very different kind of game to the hardcore 2D Tropical Platformers I’ve been playing recently. These comparisons and references fall short because you can’t really relate a game like this to anything else, the scope and context of Bioshock’s scenario is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. I would say the undersea city experience was “refreshing”, but then I’d have to be killed and photographed for betraying the creative elite with bad humour.
Bioshock combines excessive visual detail with thick sound design to carry a frantic feeling throughout the game’s environments. The lighting is powerful and dynamic with unique objects populating every room. There is a LOT to look at, and multiple layers of thuds and clangs escape the speakers to make sure you never feel alone and complacent. I think it looks great but it’s far from a technical masterpiece, as inconsistent sound volume and erratic lighting effects often tested my sanity. It was sometimes hard to tell what I was looking at. I’d see a corpse twitching and wonder, is this part of the game? What is this flapping leg trying to tell me? Is there a sea slug in there crying for help? While in most games I would just laugh it off as a glitch, Bioshock does such a convincing job with its atmosphere that all the technical bells, whistles and failures feel coherent with the hostile personality of Rapture. I developed a sense to constantly scan around every area without staring at one thing for too long, and when I stopped I had to make sure I was standing in a good tactical position. You can never tell if there’s a psycho stomping around the next room or if it’s just Bioshock being Bioshock. My near-launch Xbox 360 also added to the atmosphere, making loud whirring noises I often couldn’t differentiate from the game. Just another big ugly beast in Rapture with glowing lights and too much power.
What makes Bioshock’s gameplay more interesting than most shooters is the power you hold in your hand. Abilities called Plasmids allow you to interact with the environment and can also be creative tools in battle. You can shoot electricity out of your hand, light things on fire, grab distant objects, freeze things, manipulate enemies or annoy them with bugs. If you pay attention to the environment you can make excellent use of these, for example lighting up oil patches with fire or zapping enemies while they standing helplessly in water. It’s very satisfying to pull off some quick kills, and this kind of thinking is necessary to save ammo and money which I found myself short on a few times (out of carelessness really, there’s enough to go around). The level design is fantastic and each area has branching rooms and clever design allowing you to take different tactical approaches. It encourages you to explore while at the same time keeping you sharp with looming dangers.
Big Daddies are found roaming each area protecting Little Sisters. I’m not going to talk much about the story, but Little Sisters are important for upgrading your abilities and taking down the protecting Big Daddy is the only way to “communicate” with a Little Sister and get ADAM, a substance that alters your DNA to make you more powerful. These things take a LOT of effort to take down, and require a good strategy unless you like dying a lot. Dying is a great way to feel alive, but so is not dying which I recommend. Anyway, I dreaded these things at the start of the game, but slowly grew excited for each encounter as I figured out new ways to approach them. It’s fun to experiment with gameplay approaches, and these overpowered enemies are a great vessel for that.
Hacking is another way you can manipulate the environment, and it can fuck you over in just as many ways. You start off with a blank hacking canvass and have a limited time to flip the tiles over and rearrange the pipes to transport the flow safely. Mostly it works out and it’s not too difficult, but the random patterns give you a reason to do it fast just in case you get a shit pattern. I think the randomness is an obvious design choice and one I agree with, because without the risk of screwing up it wouldn’t be as exciting. It’s necessary for this interaction to capture the feeling of doing something risky, because all the enemies just stand there while you do it. The punishment isn’t that bad for failing a hack, just a slight loss of health or an alarm trigger and you can try again, but I found it enjoyable. It’s a nice feeling when you lay a pipe down just in time and watch that fucker fill up.
Aside from hacking vending machines to make items cheaper, you can hack sentry drones to get them on your side. These are a huge asset when dealing with groups of enemies or Big Daddies. They don’t do much damage to a Big Daddy but a distraction is all you need sometimes. One thing I didn’t like is the clumsy controller interface while hacking, I wanted to pick up my Wii U GamePad every time and solve it quickly with a touch screen. The extra layer of tension added by slowly cycling through tiles with a dpad or stick does not send the right kind of thrills through my body.
There’s sloppiness to all this insanity as the interface can feel quite clumsy at times, I found that unlocking more plasmid slots just made it more difficult to cycle through them. It also would have been nice to have a separate button for the wrench, because it’s usually too late to take it out for a swing when an enemy’s partying on your face. There’s also a fundamental stiffness to the controls that I don’t like, and the complete lack of reaction from enemies when you hit them can be jarring. It’s nitpicking, but Goldeneye (N64, 1997) had 17 different possible reactions from soldiers when you shot them. I don’t think 1 is too much to ask for. Overall Bioshock doesn’t feel like a shooter because the points of significant interest are in the environment and the characters, but realistically that is what you’re doing for 95% of the time and I had a lot of awkward moments. Some of the enemies are bullet sponges for no inexplicable reason, and it’s just embarrassing standing there unloading an entire machine gun clip on someone. So… you like ADAM? Yeah. It likes you too. There shouldn’t be that much time for small talk and the knockback is almost nonexistent.
I haven’t talked about the story or characters much because you should just play it, it’s an experience highly tailored to the player and I spent the whole game questioning the significance of that. Each area has its own brand of crazy, and drops a lot of new info for you to digest. I’m already considering a second playthrough because admittedly I didn’t go back and listen to every audio tape or scour every room, I was just focused on surviving and far too interested in getting out of there. There’s info scattered all over the place detailing the ideals, science and general craziness behind the existence of this place. It truly is a magnificent construction, and some of the views of the great big ocean outside the glass took my breath away. As water often does.
Bioshock is a good game, an average shooter and an amazing experience. It’s one of the most impressive game worlds I’ve ever explored and even though I’ve beaten it I don’t feel like I’m done yet. I’ve heard mixed things about Bioshock 2 and Infinite, so first I’m just keen to extract all the juicy ADAM I can from the first game. I already have a bad experience with Infinite though, for completely taking over search engines and making it very difficult to find screenshots for this game. The series is already ruined. Most of the screenshots I did find are vague non-gameplay shots, so I don’t blame myself for having no idea what this game was about. I have to give a shout out to nintenlo who actually convinced me to play this (probably without realising I would), and she has a great writeup of her Bioshock experience with muuuuch more detail than I could muster. Another shout out to the receipt that’s been inside my Bioshock box all these years. It was bought at 10:15am on the 12th of July 2010. I was served by Ben from GAME, a store that has now ceased operations in Australia. If you’re reading this man, I hope you found a new job and Bioshock is awesome. Thank you kindly.