08
Jan
09

Bioshock review

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One of the best games I played in 2007 was this little gem. No game is perfect and the problem of combining a fluid and compelling storyline into an interactive structure has yet to be cracked. Bioshock tries its hardest and does it very well. The game also tries to defy pigeon holing. Is it a FPS? (first person shooter), is it a survival horror? An RPG? (role playing game). The game mixes various gaming genres into a whole that rarely jars or seems out of place.

Bioshock is set in Rapture an underwater dystopian city created in 1946 by business tycoon Andrew Ryan. This hideaway was created as an escape from the pressures and controls of the political, religious and economic regimes of the time. A place where the best creative and scientific minds could work unhindered, a place where humanity’s greatest could unleash their dreams unbound from morality. These underlying themes explore egoism, unfettered capitalism, vanity, the ideology of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist theory and the worst outcomes of a society without restraint. It is now 1960. You play as Jack, a plane crash survivor washed to the shores of Rapture’s entrance, your only refuge. On entering the city Jack soon realizes that this strange city has gone to hell, evidence of protests and riots litter the place, decay and rot permeate the Art Décor and soon the first of the survivors appear, disfigured and mutated by gene therapy and cosmetic surgery. These pitiful creatures babble and rant in the way that only the unhinged can. The back story that leads up to the current state of affairs is explained through personal voice recorders scattered around the city and radio messages from Atlas. On entering the city Jack is contacted by a stranger known as Atlas via a two way radio. Atlas needs Jack’s help in finding and rescuing his family trapped in the bowels of the Rapture. The only way that Jack can help Atlas and escape Rapture alive is by transforming himself through gene technology which grants him supernatural and psychic abilities. The only way to do this is by “harvesting” Adam from the Little Sisters. Adam is the end product of stem cell research and the basis of all of Raptures’ enhanced gene therapy. The only problem is that the Adam you need to survive is contained within genetically enhanced girls and you have to make a moral choice through the course of the game as to how you get the Adam. Andrew Ryan in the mean time suspects Jack to be a government spy and does all he can to trap and kill him but who are you really and who is Atlas?

Confused? Well to explain the story would ruin the enjoyment of the game for anyone yet to play it, so I will leave these questions unanswered, except to say that freedom is cleverly an illusion in this game, not only as a story telling technique but also as a game play mechanic. How can you play as a character with complete freedom in a game that needs your attention for the story it wants to tell? How can a game make you think about topics if it gives the player free rein? The game plays with you, with the perceptions of self, of character, of free will and plays with the very concept of being in a game. Unfortunately it can be a little too clever for its own good and when the games tries to give you real freedom of moral choice it slightly unravels itself and its themes.

It is rare to find such richly detailed and immersive art direction and design in a game. The use of Art Décor in the 1960’s helps to realize a world out of time, fused with bizarre alternate technology. This digital world is complete, you can believe in its impossibleness. The game drips atmosphere, water leaks from rusty bolt holes and floods corridors, it feels like the city will implode at any moment, you can literally feel the pressure of being at the bottom of the ocean. The game offers many ways to achieve objectives and survive through the use of “gene tonics”. These tonics offer the player abilities like telekinesis, to move objects, fire, ice, insect swarms and many others. When a tonic is activated your character’s left hand and arm will physically transform, blister, burn and tear as it belches forth flame or flings a cloud of insects. Along the way security cameras, safes and ammo dispensers can be hacked through a series of mini puzzle games. Although fun (you have a limited time to complete them before you get an electric shock) they sometimes feel out of place with the rest of the game play elements, but you can always buy a hacking tool at a vending machine and bypass this process anyway. The AI is impressively smart and will react to their environment. This game surprised me because I was able to set one enemy upon another instead of myself and thus escape unharmed. An enemy will evaluate if you are the biggest threat in its immediate area and either attack you or the larger problem.

An ambitious game and a rare game, Bioshock contains many mature threads of thought and subject matter, it forces you to think about morality, vanity and the self, something no other game has achieved and for that alone it needs to be played.

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