I picked up Bioshock in late summer for $10 during a Steam half-off weekend sale and spottily pecked at it to finish a relatively short game (under 15 hours) over a two month period. As a spiritual successor to System Shock 2, it raises the bar in the RPG/action shooter genre with top notch graphics, equipment upgrade systems, and inventive writing.

Over the past two decades, designers have been finding new ways to artificially enclose their game world. Early FPS games were always indoors (you can’t run into the vacuum of space). Then more advanced graphic engines went to the \_/ shape, using inaccessible buildings or canyons as boundaries in outdoor areas. Once skymap graphics were quality enough, we saw tall cliffs (Half Life’s “Surface Tension” chapter). So for Bioshock – why not throw it underwater?

Aside from the opening and ending sequence, everything is submerged in the ocean. In the first few levels, through windows you can see many inaccessible structures in the distance that paint a a hidden city underwater, named Rapture. Graphics throughout the settings are enhanced by a very cool water system with shader effects that provide the most realistic take I’ve seen of liquid interacting with 3D surfaces on a computer screen.

The story itself is a plane crash victim coming upon a secret city built underwater in the 1950s that was created in an attempt to start a new society with true freedom. Given that it’s a video game, there are inevitable grotesqueries that create necessary conflicts for the protagonist. The environment is a dank and dimly lit utopia-gone-wrong of art deco architecture and halogen-lit signs surrounded by throwback cultural references. This setting is likely the game’s strongest suit.

For combat, you face mechanical security systems and genetically deformed people that have gone beyond-dementia. So like any FPS, stuff tries to kill you so you kill it back. Deeper into the game, there are many choices when it comes to gameplay tactics. You can hack security systems or use the genetic modification system (plasmids and tonics) to turn enemies on each other. These RPG-ish “magic” abilities or traditional weapons permit the choice between stealth or balls-to-the-walls methods to defeat your foe. Weapon upgrades and custom-built equipment requires gathering sets of items, which open up many a permutation and combination to increase the replayability factor. At least it’s not another World War II shooter!

The story unfolds through the Rapture’s characters contacting the protagonist via a radio contact system. So you take the red pill to find out how deep the rabbit-hole goes and in the final quarter of the story, find out little was at it seemed. Rooms and points of interest are littered with cassette tape audio diaries (like System Shock 2) with minor characters expanding on what went wrong in the city. They’re unnecessary to progress in each level aside from a single instance where you must listen for an elevator’s access code. I thought it was great that they avoided Doom 3’s annoying pitfall but these audio excerpts could have been made more purposeful.

Much of the advertising campaign was focused on the relationship of the Big Daddy and Little Sister characters found throughout the game. Acting as a mechanically-enhanced protector of its vulnerable little mate, the Big Daddy will keep on keeping on as long as you don’t approach its nearby Little Sister. If not, get ready for hellfire. Once you throw down the larger of the two, the game presents you with two options. You can “harvest” (i.e., kill) the little girl for her ADAM to increasing your physical, engineering, or research abilities through genetic modifications. The other choice is to save the girl by removing the genetic mods and return her to normal again with the promise from one of the story’s main character that you will rewarded. This is just in the form of gameplay items to help you defeat other enemies. In the end, the choice between harvesting or saving Little Sisters doesn’t have any effect on the experience aside from a difference in 20 seconds of the Bioshock’s end cutscene.

I’ve already been spoilerish up to this point, but I’m going to get right into the game’s conclusion now. It probably should have ended where you kill Rapture’s leader Andrew Ryan when it’s discovered that you were raised to be his assassin by the city’s dissenter, Fontaine. After that, the story and gameplay just drags, highlighted by the tedious escort mission where you are turned into a Big Daddy and must guide a Little Sister through a full level. She takes forever to walk to the next point and it’s composed of predictable enemy respawning fights. I died a fuck-tonne during this sequence.

This brings me to the final boss fight. Before ascending an elevator to reach a ‘roided up Fontaine, you are presented a room for a final opportunity to use the twisted vending machines to reconfigure genetic modifications and weapons. What the game doesn’t tell you is that you can’t save once the elevator starts… oh, and it doesn’t do an auto-save for that room so what you’ve chosen is set in stone for the final boss encounter. It’s a traditional arena battle with four stages of attack types, but I simply could not beat him. From what I’ve read online, most people seem to be laughing at how easy it was to defeat Fontaine, but I always die during the third stage from the electrical pulse ball he throws with other surrounding enemies respawning. My plasmids were equipped with the most advanced versions of telekinesis, incinerate, target dummy, winter blast, and sonic boom (direct a compressed air pulse charge) but I needed enhancements to my physical and combat tonics for quicker healing and more damage.

After 20+ attempts, I just gave up and ended up watching the two endings on YouTube. Since I’m not a monster, I saved every Little Sister I came across since I’m not starved for hunger of power… or something. So if I didn’t suck, I would’ve watched the happy ending. The game constantly presents warnings that you must harvest all possible ADAM to be powerful enough later in the game but the Vita-Chamber system is a crutch that just allows you to respawn over and over to win tougher fights. I consider this a failure of the game designers since they obviously saw it was possible for the final fight to be impossible but instead threw up a message rather than created mechanics to force, not guide, the player to enhance their abilities as the game progressed.

So the game itself is based on the Objectivism philosophy of author Ayn Rand but since I’m not-so-well-rounded swine, I haven’t read her main works, The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. Mainly focused on every person acting in their own self-interest, it’s a choice between being free or a slave to other people’s wills. These points are highlighted when your character is forced to kill Andrew Ryan (in a cutscene) but it all seems a joke since games pull you along a rope without much freedom to explore, with the storyline going A to B to C. You’re at the author’s mercy. So what do we get out of it from the story? Self-interest of individuals just leads to conflict with no resolution except violence in an attempt to create change? Welcome to video games.

So the visuals and gameplay systems are solid with a few holes that can lead to unpleasant experiences in the outlier. While this game is very re-playable due to the amount of tactical choice, I have too much other entertainment in my queue to give it more attention. Bioshock is still the strongest shooter to come out in the last few years.