Enter BioShock: almost undisputably the biggest PC blockbuster game of the year so far. Since its release countless reviews have been published and the developer formerly known as Irrational’s head honcho Ken Levine has been doing the rounds again, giving interview after interview in the aftermath of the game’s release. In these times of swirling hype and raging opinion, much like those surrounding Half-Life 2’s release, it is refreshing to finally be able to just sit down and play the game that sits at the eye of the media and critical storm. Now, I have had the opportunity - and I can say that quite simply, I am of the opinion that BioShock is the best FPS since HL2.
BioShock’s world is called Rapture, a once-glorious underwater city that sits as a refuge from the thievery of the outside world deep under the mid-Atlantic. Opened in 1946 by powerful industrialist Andrew Ryan and his Ryan Industries, Rapture was conceived by Ryan as a place where academics, artists, and other educated people could seek refuge from the overbearing government systems of the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as other institutions like the Catholic Church. Ryan’s motto is “No gods or kings. Only man.” He comes across as an aggressively intellectual individualist, whose preoccupation is with a fair market and the smooth running of his undersea paradise. The player takes the role of “Jack” (identifiable only by a gift he is carrying as the game begins), the sole survivor of a devastating plane crash in the middle of the ocean. Jack has the fortune (or so it first appears) of finding his way to a mysterious monolithic tower, which soon turns out to be the entrance to Rapture itself. And so, the player descends into Rapture, quickly discovering that it has been a place of chaos, death and destruction for over a full year before the game begins, in 1960.
I will give no more away about how Rapture became a place of insanity - but suffice it so say that revealing the chaotic backstory to its world is one of its subtleties and greatest strengths, and is extremely satisfying.
Whilst not the overriding one, the goal that stays with the player most consistently through the game is simply to survive. Rapture is a vicious and dangerous place, one of petty and monstrous violence committed by the Splicers, psychopathic and disfigured inhabitants of the city whose overuse of plasmids - ability-enhancing genetic modifications invented in Rapture’s creative boom - has driven them completely, murderously insane. And so in order to both survive and thrive in Rapture, gaining an understanding of how to exploit its systems is paramount. In accordance with Andrew Ryan’s emphasis on strong capitalism, most of the game’s RPG elements are made available to the player through a variety of vending machines and similar devices. Cash can be found scattered around Rapture’s many locations and can then be spent on first aid kids, ammunition, and other useful items. Plasmids, however, bought from specific Gatherer’s Garden machines, are different - they require Adam to be spent, and it is here that the Big Daddies and Little Sisters, stars of a thousand screenshots even before the game’s release, come genuinely into play. The game does very well in using some of its audio diaries to help explain why Little Sisters are compelled to harvest Adam - “the canvas of genetic modification”, as the mysterious Dr Suchong labels it - from the corpses of the less fortunate Rapture citizens. And so this they do, encouraging Adam-hungry Splicers to occasionally try to harvest the Sisters for said Adam. And so like the helmeted Securicor men of Ryan’s submerged, abstract economy, Big Daddies defend the Sisters as best they can from attack. Soon, however, the player realises that the Daddies must be killed and Adam harvested in order to acquire more powerful plasmids and passive tonics.
Alas, there had to be problems, as there always are. BioShock’s final section is often bitterly disappointing on various levels. Unfortunately it appears that Irrational were simply running out of steam - the fine sense of pacing that pervaded the rest of the game seems to crumble rapidly, leaving a confused madcap dash in its wake. The Little Sisters and Big Daddies are devalued purely in the interests of creating a hollow, artificial challenge in one particular section, and the very final challenge of the game simply shatters the incredible atmosphere the rest of the game worked together so wonderfully to create. That is not to say that the end sections are wholly bad, or even “bad” at all - they merely disappoint, for various reasons. The final ending, however, I found surprisingly moving and affecting - another startlingly excellent moment to save the game’s conclusion from complete mediocrity.
Ultimately, BioShock takes us on a ride full of varied and physical combat, well-handled plot exposition, and absolutely excellent graphics and setting, gives us a weak final section and then leaves us. Whilst there may be no multiplayer, and that final section is irritating, BioShock nevertheless makes quick work of 2007's weaker shooters like STALKER and provides one of this year's best experiences on any platform.