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January 2014

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Continuing my practice of playing the best games from a year ago, I recently picked up Bioshock on steam for $15.

Having recently defeated Mass Effect on normal and having been horribly disappointed with the difficulty level, I set the slider to "hard" and got going. The opening sequence is completely chaotic - your plane crashes in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, your character swims to the surface, and suddenly you're placed in control. There's only one thing you can do, of course, and that's to swim to the light house and go inside.

Light house? What the hell?

So, you go inside, and discover the marvelous dystopia that is Rapture, a decaying steampunk-style underwater city, founded by a man wishing to create a society free from government regulation where the only law is capitalism.

In this environment, Rapture's scientists were able to further genetic research to the point where they could rewrite a human's genetic structure on the fly. Aided by a material known as ADAM, they were even able to unlock psychic potential in humans, granting them superhuman abilities such as telekenisis or the ability to shoot lightning from their fingertips.

But something went wrong. Really wrong. While most of the remaining population of Rapture has acquired superhuman abilities through the use of ADAM, mentally they've effectively devolved - no longer "normal" humans, they've spliced their genes to the point that they've gone mad.

Of course, at first, you don't know any of this. Everything is revealed slowly, through the environment - signs with slogans on them, posters, audio recordings left behind. Nothing is laid out for you in an intro movie or a cut scene. All you know is that you're in an underwater city, and you've got to fight off a bunch of freaks to survive. You (seemingly inexplicably, though this is explained later) shoot yourself up with a genetic modification, and take off to save the day (or at least save your own ass).

For a large portion of the game, your directives come from a mysterious person known as "Atlas," who communicates with you via radio - giving you instructions and a bit of useful information here and there. Atlas wants you to kill Andrew Ryan (an anagram for Ayn Rand - get it?), the founder of Rapture, whom he blames for its current state of decay.

The storytelling mechanism worked really well on me. Your character has a... complex... back story that even he is not aware of, and you (and he) only learn of it by exploring Rapture and collecting clues. The game never comes out and tells you who you are, but over time it does become clear - this is not your first time in Rapture. You relive the past as you discover the effects of it in the decay surrounding you. And, while the main story arc of the game is really quite linear, it doesn't usually *feel* that way given the way you can uncover bits and pieces of the past outside of the main plot.

Combat in Bioshock has a large emphasis on ammo conservation. You have "plasmids" (telepathic powers) and traditional weapons. You start off with only two plasmid slots, but have the ability to upgrade them later (to 6 or 8, I believe), and you acquire weapons over time (up to 6 or 7). Plasmids use up EVE, weapons use up ammo, and neither is exactly overabundant - no weapon is ever completely obsoleted in Bioshock, even though you get more powerful weapons as you progress, because ammo is sparse enough that you'll almost surely need the lowly pistol (or the surprisingly effective wrench) even late in the game. Each weapon (except the wrench) also has multiple ammo types, which are more effective against different sorts of enemies.

There are a couple of character advancement options, as well. Along with the active use "plasmids," there are passive effect "gene tonics" that confer bonuses to various abilities. For example, there are bonuses to fire damage, bonuses to hacking ability, bonuses to run speed, and the like. These can be adjusted later - as with plasmids, there is a limited number of slots that can be upgraded over time by spending ADAM.

Oh, and speaking of ADAM, it's vitally important to character improvement and there's really only one way to get it - from entities known as "little sisters." ADAM is incredibly valuable, and hard to reproduce - so valuable, in fact, that as violence broke out in Rapture scientists devised a method to harvest the substance from the dead. The "little sisters" are former orphans, genetically conditioned and brainwashed to harvest ADAM from the dead. They're not alone, though - they're protected by "boss" type creatures known as "Big Daddies."

To get the ADAM, you have to kill the Big Daddies, and then you can leach it out of the little sisters - either getting a small amount by opting to "cure" them, or getting a larger amount by "harvesting" them (resulting in their death).

There are also all sorts of ways in which you can interact with the environment, most notably in hacking security systems and other machines. You can make the security turrets work for you.

Really, though, it all comes back to the storytelling. I liked the combat, for sure, and I loved the setting, but the clear win for Bioshock is the way the story is revealed through the environment. The story itself is OK - pretty convoluted, with quite a few plot holes and cliches, but certainly not bad by video game standards. But the masterful way it's revealed completely overshadows its shortcomings, to the point that I managed to completely overlook them until I'd finished the game.

As I see it, Bioshock essentially has 3 "acts." The first "act" culminates in a meeting with Atlas that goes horribly wrong, and the second leads to the climactic confrontation with Andrew Ryan and the revelation of your character's true nature. The third "act" is your character's response to this revelation, and his final attempt to gain his freedom.

Acts I and II are marvelous. There are some clever plot twists, especially leading up to the end of act II, which I honestly didn't even see coming. The third act is the weakest of the three, as all of the big mysteries are resolved by the end of act II and all that's left is the cleanup, but it's still quite solid.

Now, a point of much contention - the ending cinematics. I hope it's not too much of a spoiler when I tell you that there are 2 endings, one in which your character is "good" and another in which he's "evil." It's clearly black and white, and the only determining factor is whether you've harvested the little sisters (even harvesting ONE of them gives you the "bad" ending). I feel like this is a complete copout, and a really big disappointment - I think I would've been happier without any sort of ending at all.

But really, this is only a minor gripe. The styling, gameplay, storytelling... it's all just so top notch, I can't help but love this game. I'll go ahead and call it the best FPS I've ever played, and one of the best single player games I've played, period.

Hell, it's almost as good as Portal.


Nitin @ Thu Aug 28 04:25:14 -0400 2008

I think your evaluation of the game being about conserving ammunition is a little off, at least once you're closer to the end of the first act. Judicious usage of it and regular visits to vending machines tends to take care of that problem.

Jeremy @ Wed Sep 03 09:53:40 -0400 2008

Well, the vending machines help, but the selection at any location is limited and they may not always have what you want. At no point in the game could I fire willy-nilly with my weapon of choice - I'd always have to have at least 2 "primary" weapons in case one ran out of ammo.

The ammo scarcity (or, more often, limited carrying capacity) forces you to think about conservation. For me, once I hit "act 3," I almost always had a good supply of ammo for at least one of my preferred weapons - but one big fight could still take you from full capacity to almost empty. It's something I could never stop thinking about, and I'd always try to plan my fights to waste the least amount of ammo.

A note about difficulty, in general - I played on hard, with the resurrection tubes disabled, and I still sometimes felt the game was too easy. The toughest fight that I recall is actually the first Big Daddy battle, where your ammo and plasmid options are really limited - I found myself hammering down first aid kids and barely squeaking through that. But later in the game there are two weapon types - electric buck and electric gel - that are so ridiculously overpowered that they can trivialize any encounter (even the final boss) by effectively perma-stunning an enemy. These are controlled by scarcity and low carrying capacity, but once I started seeing U-Invent machines I was able to always have enough gel on hand to take down Big Daddies, and that turned them from brutal and dangerous encounters to complete pansies.

I feel like this is how it's designed to work - that you have the "god mode" gun that you essentially save for the boss fights - but the way in which it works makes these fights really feel lame.

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