(This review contains no plot spoilers for anything beyond the first fifteen minutes and the back of the box. It’s likely to be changed/updated when I play more of the game.)
The game starts with you underwater, watching stuff from the plane crash you just survived whizz past you. As the camera looks up, you see the dappled impressionistic maze of an oil fire on the water above, and you’re heading towards a black – and therefore clear – area within it. You surface, gasping, choking, wheezing for air, and then nothing happens for a little while, until your player realities this isn’t actually a pre-rendered cut-scene, the game really does look like this.
I’m not sure if Bioshock is the first PC game to use the new Unreal 3 engine, I know Gears of War uses it for the 360. It is absolutely magnificent. It helps that I’m running on a reasonable spec machine (which, less monitors, was less than £300), but at 1024*768, the game is utterly glorious.
The setting is an art-deco city – Rapture – built under the sea by a man called Andrew Ryan. The city was founded on the values of individualism, self worth and community spirit. Your job is to try to leave, and incidentally find out what the hell is going on.
In doing so, you get three useful things. The first is hardware in the form of weaponry. The second is magic in the form of Plasmids. The third is Adam. Adam works the way you’d expect XP to work in a normal RPG game. Wandering around the level are some apparently little girls, protected by giant monsters. When you deal with them (you don’t have to kill them) you get Adam, which you can spend on upgrading your abilities, like more damage. The bad point is the giant monsters. Nothing in the history of gaming hits as hard as these things do. They will pick you up by sticking a drill bit in you and throw you across the scenery, definitely enemies to clear a large space in the level before tackling. Fortunately, they won’t bother you unless you hit them. The first time you do so by accident (Say, for example, it opens a door and the Rocket Powered Grenade you just fired misses the Splicer and hits it) you will swear.
Also, you face the automated defense systems: turrets and CCTV. Fortunately you can hack into these if you get close enough, by means of a game of Pipemania. I have, in the last couple of days, got very good at Pipemania.
Most of the time you’re facing splicers, however, which are scary. Not in the “We can kill you” kind of way, but in the genuinely creepy kind of way. They come in various types: melee, ranged etc. But they won’t attack you generally unless they notice you, which means you get to observe them in their natural state.
Which is absolutely batshit insane.
They will mutter to themselves, bewail their lot, whistle nursery rhymes, justify themselves. On the minus side, it’s quite creepy to hear the various enemies voices echoing around the level. On the plus side, at least you know they’re there.
It’s faintly annoying that you can lay traps all over the level, change every turret to be on your side, but still when you reach for the Shiny Mcguffin Of Plot, four will have respawned behind you, and another dozen dotted around the level, but it keeps the levels populated with things you can harvest for cash.
So we move on to the story, without telling you anything about it. The story is told by means of the diary entries of inhabitants of Rapture, and by the people who have the frequency of the short-wave radio you’re carrying. You very rarely meet NPCs and never speak to them- the radio is one way – in this way Bioshock takes a leaf out of the Half-life school of design.
It’s a game of new shines on many old ideas. The classic “Kills = XP = Upgrades” from RPG-style games is tacked on, but with the twist of only one type of monster counting towards it (Which don’t respawn, obviously), and a couple of other twists I won’t mention. The upgrade system itself is interesting, you can rearrange which upgrades you’re using of any of the ones you’re purchased. Finding yourself running out of health? Swap a damage for armour. Can’t reach that ledge? Modify your plasmids a bit. You can set up traps, throw people into ceiling fans with a spring, electrocute the pool they’re standing in (And, if they’re not standing in a pool, set them on fire, then electrocute the pool they run to).
It’s not perfect. There’s a loot/inventions system that kicks in that seems distinctly half-imagined, the exact same fuzzy wave of static duration that goes over your vision whenever you pass under a water feature – from dripping tap to full waterfall, a slight apparent tendency to cling to dramatic clichés (balanced somewhats by moments of true surprise in the plot). The introduction of things like Plasmids without explaining what they are (even vaguely). But most of these are minor flaws in an exceptional masterpiece.
Oh, and one major flaw. You remember the thing where I don’t like being treated like a pirate? Bioshock uses the new version of Sony’s Securom technology, which implements DRM on the game I bought in the store. I can – after many people complained to Take2 (who publish the game) – now activate it on this computer Five Whole Times! Unless I upgrade the hardware, which I can also do Five Whole Times. It’s lucky I didn’t spend forty quid on a game that they can restrict what I can do with my computer…
I need not tell you that the pirates do not have to activate their copies of Bioshock, that they aren’t limited to how they use their computers. Take2 have apparently promised the developers that the activation will be deactivated at some point in the future. Also on the geeky-DRM style of things, various people claim that the Securom 3 system uses a rootkit, take with usual grain of condiment of choice. End technical rant, back to game stuff.
What haven’t I mentioned?
Oh, the sound. The sound is glorious, also. Echoy hallways, reflections of old 40s singles while you fill things full of lead, the whistling of the splicers and the creepy duel-tone singing of the little sisters.
This last paragraph contains a tiny spoiler, but not for the plot, just for one of the weapons you get later in the game. It is there because it’s just too awesome not to mention:
You get the ability to fire bees at people. And they are there, covered in bees. First time I used it, I shot a group of slicers from a way away, switched to my shotgun and killed them while they were swiping at the insects. One of them was carrying a cup of coffee. I like my coffee like I like my first person shooter games.
Covered in bees.