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Friday, December 10, 2010

BioShock (9.8/10)

BioShock is anexperience. I think that’s the best term to use. I mulled this over for quite a while, and all I can really say is that you’ll understand if you play it. It is, without a doubt, my favorite game of this generation, and probably my favorite game of all time.

BioShock starts as the 1950's give way to the 60's. You are riding in a plane over the ocean when it goes down… you break surface, gasping for breath as the wreckage sinks around you and fire spreads over the water. As you are floundering amidst the flames you see a lighthouse on a small outcropping. Seems a bit odd considering, but what choice do you have? You climb the steps, soaked from head to toe, and enter… a different world. A small submarine lies at the bottom of a set of stairs. Overhead ominously looms a giant statue holding a banner reading "No gods or kings. Only man." With no other options you take a submersible down into the deep. As you crest a rise on the seabed the shining city is revealed and it’s a sight to behold: Rapture. One man’s utopian vision… and it’s falling apart, decaying. Something has gone terribly wrong in Rapture, and it has more to do with you than you might imagine…

From that auspicious introduction, BioShock draws you in and will not let go. Creeping along the corroding corridors of the sunken city brought to life with some pretty good graphics and great sound work, creates a foreboding atmosphere that is second to none. You pause to peer around every corner… and what you’ll see is shocking. An entire city of the best and brightest minds on the planet, brought down to the lowest common denominator by their shared addiction to a drug called ADAM. Mutated and twisted in both mind and body, they are ruthless, reckless, and completely off their rockers. These splicers (for they are spliced up on ADAM… see?) have the run of the place. And boy, have they let it go!

Their pushers, for all addicts have pushers, are… little girls?!? WTF? Angelic little girls with pretty glowing eyes and ratty dresses (something is most definitely rotten in Denmark, er… Rapture. Apologies to any Danes in the audience…), who, upon finding corpses, fall to their grubby little knees and gleefully stab, stab, STAB away with massive syringes harvesting the precious ADAM. These are the Little Sisters, all the while they are watched over by their silent (mostly) bodyguards, the lumbering Big Daddies. You can imagine how this dynamic plays out, especially if you want the ADAM. A Big Daddy will not relinquish his ward without a fight! I won't spoil it for you, but each of these encounters is harrowing and challenging to say the least. As soon as you hear one stomping around, you'll instantly be on your guard. However, there is a moral conundrum waiting you when you have finally defeated their guardians. You can save the Little Sister from her fate and return her to being a normal pretty, pretty princess, or harvest her for more ADAM…

And you do want the ADAM, because that’s the currency you need to purchase your plasmids. "Plasmids? What are they?" I hear you inquire. The short hand is plasmids are the ‘magic’ of Rapture. Take this shiny syringe and inject liquid lightning into your fingertips! See those splicers over there in that puddle (after all, we are under the bloody ocean, and Rapture is coming apart at the seams!)? Give it a zap and watch them all go down! And it doesn’t stop there! With a snap of your fingers you can set fire to, well, pretty much anything. Want to grab that oil barrel and drop it on those unsuspecting splicers there? Use telekinesis. That annoying baddie that is chasing you around, screaming gibberish? Zap him with lightning, then as he stands stunned, bash him in the noggin with your wrench! The ol’ one-two!

And it works brilliantly because one side of your controller’s shoulder buttons is for your normal weapons (guns, wrench, etc) and the other is for plasmids. Switching back and forth is quick and easy. Hitting the right or left shoulder buttons (not the triggers) will bring up a "weapon wheel" which you can then use to switch armaments as the situation dictates. The action pauses when you do this, so you don’t get clobbered while trying to change your equipment. With a little practice and you will be dicing splicers in no time.

However, splicers are just the foot soldiers of Rapture and really not much more than cannon fodder. There are much bigger, more nefarious, fish in this pond. The narrative of BioShock is a clever piece of fiction. A colorful cast of lunatics is brought to life by some excellent voice work and writing. Rapture is full of secrets in the form of audio diaries that have been left by its populace, at least those that are still with it enough to leave anything coherent. These are by no means necessary for the completion of the game, but they do an incredible job of fleshing out the story. The motivations of the cast and little eccentricities of the story are better explained. The characters themselves are more than memorable (not to mention messed up! Sander Cohen makes me smile:^) and plot will keep you guessing until… about two thirds of the way though, there is the biggest and best plot twist of any game I’ve ever played. I won't give any more specifics, for fear of spoiling the surprise. It is brilliantly done, and worth the price of admission on it’s own.

I feel like I’ve been doing nothing here but lauding BioShock but it's not quite perfect. The targeting can be a bit twitchy. There is a slight learning curve with the controls. Some mini games, like hacking terminals or sentry bots, can get a bit tedious towards the end. The clunky menu makes it difficult to look up plot points, and the map is not exactly intuitive.

The biggest complaint is that Vita-Chambers make the game too easy. Let me explain… Vita-Chambers are magical machines where you respawn after you die. You can run right back into the fight and your enemies will retain the damage you caused. Basically this means you can run up and bash a Big Daddy in the head with a wrench at which point he will most likely squish you. You then respawn at the Vita-Chamber and can run right back and bash him again. You can do this over and over again with no penalty, slowly whittling away his health. Generally I don’t complain about things being too easy, but it’s difficult not to notice when the design negates any challenge. Of course, most people won’t play the game that way but there you have it.

I love this game... I beat the game the first time in two days. Two days of straight playing through the horror that was Rapture… but let me tell you more. My best friend was home for Christmas that year and he hung out in my condo, drank all my beer, and played BioShock. I actually took a day off of work to make sure I was there for the main plot twist just so I could see the look on his face. And you know what? It was totally worth it. As I said in the beginning, BioShock is an experience. Would you kindly just trust me on this… play it and see.


Score = 9.8 / 10

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