One glance makes it readily apparent that Bioshock is a game steeped in atmosphere. From the opening sequence, the game pulls you into the environment until you are fully immersed in the underwater world of Rapture, in both the literal and figurative sense.
You start in a plane over the mid-Atlantic, smoking a cigarette and gazing at a gift in your hands. As the Bioshock logo fills the screen, you hear the sounds of your plane crashing into the ocean. After the logo disappears, you find yourself underwater and swim to the surface as debris from the wreck sinks past. It is at this point that you take control of your character, swimming through the burning wreckage to find a set of steps leading out of the water to a tall lighthouse in the middle of the ocean. Making your way inside, you discover more stairs that take you down to a small submarine. Activating the submarine takes you back below the surface, and after viewing a short tourism video from an individual named Andrew Ryan about his vision of a perfect society where “the great would not be contained by the small”, you arrive at the underwater city of Rapture.
It turns out that Rapture isn’t quite the utopia promised in Andrew Ryan’s video during your ride down from the surface. There are very few normal humans left in the city after it was ravaged during a failed revolution. Most of the people are dead, and those that aren’t have lost their minds. The populace of Rapture became a little too enthralled with commercialized genetic modifications, going insane after one too many “splices”. A man going by the name of Atlas contacts you soon after arriving in Rapture, telling you that he is trying to escape with his family. Unfortunately, he has been cut off from them, and he asks for your help. In order to do that, you’ll have to fight through the many enemies lurking in the dark of Rapture, including Andrew Ryan himself.
Bioshock could be described as a first-person shooter, survival horror, role-playing game. Most of the gameplay involves finding and shooting your enemies, but there are also several character attributes that can be improved over the course of the game, similar to any RPG. The dark setting and creepy atmosphere also invoke many of the same feelings found in a survival horror game. This blend of attributes comes together in a unique recipe that is a lot of fun to play.
Prowling in the shadows are several varieties of Splicers, the insane former citizens of Rapture. You will run up against a large number of these general enemies during your stay at the bottom of the ocean. Some will shoot at you while others will simply try to bash your head in. Splicers usually aren’t much of a threat individually, but you can quickly find yourself in trouble when attacked by a large mob of them. There is also a security system set up in Rapture to help keep you on your toes. You will find that a fair number of automated gun turrets just happen to be in your way, and setting off an alarm (usually via a security camera) will bring a swarm of flying bots after you. By far, the most imposing of the enemies waiting for you in Rapture are the Big Daddies, lumbering hulks in deep-sea diving suits. And just like the Incredible Hulk, you wouldn’t like them when they’re angry.
If you want to survive your trip to Rapture and make it back to the surface, then you’ll have to take advantage of the genetic modifications that drove most of the city insane. These come in two different forms, Plasmids and Gene Tonics. Gene Tonics are passive upgrades to your character’s abilities that don’t require any “ammo” to use. Tonics can affect many different things including your movement speed, resistance to damage, and engineering abilities. Plasmids are “active” upgrades that do require ammo to use, in this case a blue substance called EVE. When you use up all your available EVE, you must “reload” by injecting yourself with more of the substance using a syringe. Most Plasmids are used as offensive weapons, including such abilities as Electroshock and Incinerate. Only a small number of Tonics and Plasmids can be equipped at a time, although this number can be upgraded throughout the game.
So how do you go about acquiring all these upgrades? While you will find a few tonics lying about, most of your upgrades must be purchased from a Gather’s Garden vending machine. However, these machines don’t take money. That would be too easy. No, the currency of choice for these machines is the raw genetic material known as ADAM in the Bioshock universe. Unfortunately, you can’t just go out and find ADAM for yourself. The only place to find this valuable substance is within the bodies of the Little Sisters. These little girls wander around Rapture, harvesting ADAM from the dead. In turn, you must find a Little Sister and harvest all the ADAM from her body, killing her in the process, or you can take just enough to free her from the grip it has on her mind.
Oh yeah…did I mention that each and every Little Sister is guarded by a Big Daddy? When you happen upon this unusual pair, they will go about their business, leaving you alone. The rumbling brute only attacks when provoked or when his small companion is in danger. If you wish, you can choose to leave them be, but sooner or later you will have to come face to face with the Big Daddies in order to get the precious ADAM from the Little Sisters. Unlucky for you, each Big Daddy is a force to be reckoned with, packing an effective arsenal of weapons, not the least of which is the giant drill on one arm. Their diving suits also function as very effective armor, so it’s going to take a lot of firepower (and perhaps a little bit of planning) to take one down. On the plus side, if you are killed, you’ll be able to pick up the fight where you left off once you are resurrected by one of Rapture’s plentiful Vita-Chamber devices.
Remember those engineering abilities I brought up before? These skills will help you take advantage of the many mechanical devices lying about Rapture. Just about any turret, vending machine, health station, locked safe, or security camera can be hacked, making the machines work for you. In order to do so, you must bypass their circuits by completing a hacking mini-game reminiscent of Pipe Dream. You must swap differently shaped pipe pieces on a grid in order to redirect to flow of water to the exit on the other side. Some machines are harder to hack than others, placing alarm and short circuit tiles in your way and increasing the flow speed of the water. You can also utilize special machines to invent new ammo types, hacking tools, and even a few gene tonics. Additionally, several “Power to the People” machines are hidden throughout Rapture that allow you to upgrade the capabilities of your weapons.
Bioshock’s unique setting is the game’s strongest asset. Rapture feels like a once thriving place that has fallen into disarray. The art deco visual style and underwater location combine to create something completely different than all the shooters set in WWII or sci-fi environments. The water-drenched graphics are absolutely gorgeous. I often found myself exploring every nook and cranny just to look at all the well-crafted objects I could find. Bioshock also features some of the best water I have ever seen in a video game. All of the water in the game looks great whether it is lying in a pool on the ground or bursting through the cracks in a glass porthole.
As much as the visuals contribute to the look and feel of Rapture, it is the excellent sound design and eerie soundtrack that create most of Bioshock’s moody atmosphere. The sound effects are excellent across the board from the dripping water noises to the powerful thuds of the Big Daddy footsteps. The voice acting from the main cast is very well done, as are all the one-liners from the Splicers and the many audiotape diary entries lying around that help to fill out the back story and world of Rapture from before you arrived. Bioshock’s music also goes a long way towards creating mood and emotion throughout the game. The soundtrack is tense and creepy when it needs to be, sentimental in spots, and rousing and exciting when the action kicks into high gear. I particularly enjoyed all the jukeboxes and record players around Rapture that were still playing jazzy Big Band tunes as they helped to cement the picture in my head of what the city would have been like in its prime.
Bioshock is not the kind of game that comes around every day. Compelling gameplay elements, a unique setting, top-notch level design, gorgeous graphics, and an excellent soundscape all came together to create an atmospheric adventure that is a blast to experience. While I felt the overall story wasn’t quite as successful as it could have been, it is still several steps ahead of what is usually offered in most other shooters. If you are late to the Bioshock party like I was, don’t hesitate to take the journey to Rapture. You’ll be glad you did.
Overall Grade: A-